In life, they say, we forget, but in death, all is remembered. Such would seem to be the urgent maxim behind Brigitte Cornand’s tender documentary Louise Bourgeois: La Riviere Gentile. Here you have an accomplished artist, whose paintings and sculptures have earned the highest praise, still producing work in her platinum years. Residing in a small flat somewhere in urban France, Bourgeois is at work every moment plotting a project and figuring out a how to unravel riddles gushing outward from the recesses of her mind. The film is a long gaze into discovery and a drawn-out look into process and praxis. The director and her subject seem to possess an intimacy that makes for subtly sweet moments on-screen that would take decades of cultivation for anyone else to match. The primitive presentation has a lick-the-cookie-dough-off-the-spoon sort of feeling to it, complete with dirty fingers. However, the final product is one sonorous waltz through an enchanted domain. Art snobs will rub elbows alongside culture connoisseurs who’ll get their thrills by name-checking Bourgeois in cognac conversations for a while. Mainstream folks will not be able to enjoy a reverent film of this kind because it surely will not be coming to their multiplex anytime soon.
The threads of the film are free flowing and without much architectural planning. The handheld camera trains on Bourgeois inviting the viewer into her space. Her steady but frail hands dip a fine brush into an indigo-stained jar as she whips a snake onto a rectangular page. There’s power in these movements, and her intention commands attention when she moves the brush. This is not a weak woman, however physically restricted she may be. Soon enough, the brush can go no further. “This is done,” she exhales.
Conventional banter between the subject and the filmmaker is broken. It’s all done in-the-moment. The camera turns on and rolls. The viewer is knelt behind Bourgeois’ wooden table as a fly on the wall within her living/workspace, where more is communicated by watching her paint or survey her work from the past than any dialogue could do. It’s an incredible body of work, stuffed in stacks and cases nestled against the wall. And you watch her in these long uncut shots. From the start, she is all busy with new ideas. At one point, she holds a gigantic metal water pitcher that is bigger than her small frame with the intention of filling it with tears. She’s serious. All of a sudden, it’s as if the table is calling, and she finds herself sunken into a project—with a bumper sticker reading “Honk if you want fusion” in red letters pinned on the wall as a random backdrop. A walker is also parked by Bourgeois, but you never once see her turn to use it. In fact, she seems to be resolute to not be needy. As a presence on camera, there is something regal and intense about this woman. She seems to be constantly on. Every aspect of her being is concentrated on not letting go of an idea and simply doing, doing, doing. She recites poetry, hums tunes and sings lyrics and tells tales of yore. While intense much of the time, Bourgeois can tickle the funny bone like the best of them. One bit that sticks out is her hope to return in the next life as a sheep named Sigmund.
Guided by old date books that worked as journal entries, you can see firsthand the notes and quotes and doodles the creator’s put down. Back and forth from the date book to the present, it’s as if the days of yore are too transient now. Sad, because there would have been such value in having more footage to contrast. There is a remarkable moment in the film where you see Bourgeois painting with red watercolors, and she draws familiar male and body forms with almost frock-like frames. And after we see her draw this in the present time, grainy footage shows a vigorous Bourgeois’s hand painting almost the same styled forms but doing so with a quickened pace. You feel the heavy weight of physical restrictions plaguing Bourgeois here. She seems to be completely uninhibited, though, and more determined to keep touching and tinkering about. For instance, Bourgeois constantly looks up words like “acetylene” in the dictionary. Then again, there is a time where a tapestry book she wove is page through, and there are moments when her hands track the stitching and feel its tightness. The actual touch of the stitch and feel of its strength give off a yearning to connect to the moment when the design was actually made.
With a biographer, a filmmaker and a heavy load of visitors all filing in to meet with the surrealist, there seems to be a sense of urgency. The film is an effort to keep some of these moments contained and together so that the laughs and sit downs are given immortality. The artist in this case is a fascinating subject, because rarely does Bourgeois mention much about her glory days. She is still living in the now and wants to feel, taste and nourish as she did long ago. Close to her are the tools and works of art in her flat. With them close to her at all times, Bourgeois is able to stay at ease. One dreads the thought of a phenom of her kind being dumped in a convalescent home where her songs and spunk would be forsaken.
More and more, this film shows that there is something to be said about not cutting off our elders as worthwhile persons of interest. In Bourgeois, you see an ageless soul—one that is forever engaged in her tantalizing world. As she is admittedly much more moved by the falling of a pebble than people and their self-absorbed scope, it becomes critical to appreciate the uncanny manner in which this film unveils a recluse who deserves to be front and center today. And tomorrow, too. Maybe this film will inspire a return to find those that faded from front pages but still have so much to give. One can only wish.
Les Films Du Siamois/Centre Pompidou with Harvestworks & Easton Foundation
Cast: Louise Bourgeois
Director: Brigitte Cornand
Running time: 100 min.
Release date: June 25 NY