Film Review: ‘Serendipity’

In the face of a cancer diagnosis, French artist Prune Nourry considers her own creative legacy in this singular, self-directed docu-memoir.

Prune Nourry
Prune Nourry, Agnès Varda
Release Date:
Oct 18, 2019

1 hour 14 minutes

“If I could have a secret superpower, it would be to heal with my hands,” says French artist Prune Nourry in her autobiographical documentary “Serendipity.” It’s an understandable enough admission, given that she was diagnosed with breast cancer aged 31, fighting a battle against it that included undergoing a mastectomy, harvesting her eggs in advance of chemotherapy, and a tough personal reckoning with her changed body. It would have been easier, of course, to heal herself by her own touch — except in Nourry’s view, that’s essentially what she did, albeit through art rather than science. “That’s why I’m a sculptor,” she says, gesturing toward her own busy, clay-acquainted hands: “Serendipity” documents creativity blossoming from misfortune, positing that, alongside medicine at least, it’s inspiration that has kept Nourry alive.

Once you banish all rom-com associations from your mind, then, “Serendipity” functions as two documentaries in one. The first is a heartfelt cancer diary, sometimes shot disorientingly from the gurney as Nourry is wheeled through hospital wards and mumbled over by concerned doctors. The other is effectively a polished career portfolio, reviewing Nourry’s elaborately conceptual art projects from the past, present and even future for those who may not be acquainted with her work, and considering their potential legacy as the artist herself faces her mortality. Those two remits overlap more tidily in some sequences than in others — either way, the project is very much driven by the slightly melancholic whimsy of Nourry’s strong personality, as she fashions “Serendipity” itself as another artwork in her image.

Granted a limited theatrical release after a festival run that began in Berlin, “Serendipity” has accrued a number of influential patrons and admirers along the way, including executive producers Angelina Jolie (who herself underwent a prophylactic mastectomy some years ago) and Darren Aronofsky — while the late Agnès Varda makes a brief onscreen appearance to offer wily counsel to Nourry at a low ebb. The film’s estimable collection of guardian angels should boost its profile and encourage word of mouth as it makes its way to small-screen platforms; they’re also indicative of the distinct reputation Nourry has already carved for herself in the modern art world.

Ample flashbacks to earlier, more blithely playful projects make it clear why: One amusing passage documents her peculiar 2009 interactive exhibit “The Procreative Dinner,” which visualized the various stages of in-vitro fertilization as successive edible courses in a dinner party. Though she’s always been a staunchly feminist, gender-conscious artist, the winking bad taste of such provocations does appear to bite back at her when, years later, she’s more soberly forced to consider ways of preserving her fertility as cancer casts its long shadow over her. Much of Nourry’s art, furthermore, makes a point of its impermanence: the macabre servings of “Procreative Dinner” were eaten, while the central sculpture of her Indian-located traveling exhibit “Holy River” was ultimately cast into the Ganges.

As Nourry wonders if she herself might not be long for this world, she seeks to create something that could potentially live her: A large portion of “Serendipity” is dedicated to her long-term sculpture project “Terracotta Daughters,” the many female statues of which are collectively buried in China, set to be excavated only in 2030. Beyond some surface commentary, it’s mostly left for the viewer to infer the personal metaphor and poetry in such gestures.

Nourry isn’t the most self-effacing of artists, and “Serendipity” could stand to reveal more of her artistic process, rather than gazing upon the often formidable finished product. Still, on the occasions it stops self-curating and gives us a glimpse into Nourry’s frightened, still-restless soul, this is a stirring, imposing self-portrait. Per its title, “Serendipity” may allude to the ultimate casting vote of fate, but it also shows the young artist taking what control she can in directing her life, and her potential earthly afterlife too.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Serendipity'

Reviewed online, Ghent, Belgium, Oct. 17, 2019. (In Berlin Film Festival — Panorama Documentary.) Running time: 74 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Cohen Media Group release of a Quiet, Prune Nourry Studio presentation. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York City.) Producers: Prune Nourry, Alastair Siddons. Executive producers: Angelina Jolie, Sol Guy, Darren Aronofsky. Co-producer: Matilde Incerti.

Crew: Director: Prune Nourry. Writers: Nourry, Alastair Siddons. Camera (color): Adrien Bertolle, Franklin Burger. Editor: Paul Carlin.

With: Prune Nourry, Agnès Varda. (English, French, Cantonese dialogue)

More Film

  • Rita And Tom Hanks Coronavirus

    Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson Return to U.S. After Coronavirus Diagnosis in Australia

    Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are back home in the U.S. after they revealed they had contracted coronavirus and were quarantined in Australia. Hanks gave an update on Twitter Saturday morning, thanking everyone who had helped them in Australia and assuring people that they are still isolating themselves in the U.S. “Hey, folks…We’re home now [...]

  • Film Comment Magazine Goes on Hiatus

    Film Comment Magazine to Go on Hiatus as Film at Lincoln Center Lays Off Half of Staff

    Many companies are being financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Film at Lincoln Center is the latest organization to have to lay off employees and pause some of their operations. On Friday, executive director Lesli Klainberg released a memo announcing that the center had to furlough or lay off about half of its [...]

  • "Birds of Prey" egg sandwich

    'Birds of Prey' Actor Bruno Oliver Recreates Harley Quinn's Famous Sandwich

    When actor Bruno Oliver booked the role of short order cook Sal in “Birds of Prey: (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” he had no idea how significant Sal and his breakfast sandwich were to the story. “You couldn’t tell from the audition necessarily and as actors, we always worry about our scenes [...]

  • Minyan

    'Minyan': Film Review

    Best known for the unexpectedly soul-shattering San Francisco suicide doc “The Bridge,” indie filmmaker Eric Steel came out and came of age in 1980s New York at a moment just before AIDS devastated the city’s gay community. Such timing must have been surreal, to assume something so liberating about one’s own identity, only to watch [...]

  • Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches

    Film New Roundup: Animated Movie 'The Queen's Corgi' Fetches North American Distribution

    In today’s film news roundup, “The Queen’s Corgi” finds a home, the Overlook Film Festival is postponed and the California Film Commission adjusts its tax credit rules due to the coronavirus. ACQUISITION Freestyle Digital Media has acquired North American rights to the animated family comedy feature “The Queen’s Corgi,” and plans to make it available on DVD and to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content