In conjunction with Louise Bourgeois’s Guggenheim retrospective, Anthology Film Archives recently screened Brigitte Cornand’s film trilogy on the artist. Cornand has been recording conversations, Sunday salons, and footage of Bourgeois at work since the early ’90s. The resulting films—Chere Louise (1995), C’est le murmure de l’eau qui chante (2002) (reviewed in the November 2004 issue of the Rail), and La Rivière Gentille (2007)—comprise a slow and insistent penetration into Bourgeois’s daily practice. Each film is compressed and well edited; Cornand does not aim for all-encompassing coverage of the artist’s life and oeuvre, but rather creates tight, lucid portraits.
Chere Louise opens with elegant black and white footage of Bourgeois in her sunlit kitchen. She contrasts the sturdiness of a male marble figure with its rocking female counterpart to subtly remind us how hazy, if not disintegrated, the line between her body and the forms she creates has always been. Cornand investigates the artist’s declaration that “the look is much more important than the word” throughout the three films. The artist does not trust language the way she has faith in the image: words could be “a string of lies.” However, close shots of clustered rhyming words in her notebooks, the repetition of her personal narrative, and scenes of Cornand orating dictionary definitions as Bourgeois draws make clear the importance of language in her life. Perhaps it’s language’s trickery that so intrigues Bourgeois, that compels her to rehearse its sounds. I’m grateful for the disclosure of her notes, which range from appointments with curators and friends, to word games, to strange fragments like “chop worm,” “chop a duck head.”
As much as the casual Sunday conversations and reviewing of old notebooks interest me as a viewer, though, they hold nothing against the silent clips of the artist at work. When, for example, in La Rivière Gentille a younger Bourgeois scoops heaps of plaster into a mold, we are admitted to a place absolutely material and stripped of sound, where language can exist only as a kind of residue. She wedges solid orange petals into the plaster form overcast with aged green light, and “the word” feels not just misleading or lacking in truth but completely irrelevant. The silences of scenes like this that punctuate longer stretches of dialogue are energizing. I could watch a feature length film of solely Bourgeois in silent, productive motion. To her credit, Cornand gives her audience a wealth of this process footage (both mined and recently recorded). It makes me wonder how many more untapped scenes there are to be found.
Jerry Gorovoy is a tame and comforting character foil to Louise Bourgeois. “Assistant” is a title all too understated for his role in her life. For 30 years he has fulfilled a self-imposed duty to expose her work to the public, a task too psychologically taxing for the artist to bear alone. Bourgeois points out the irony that Jerry does not speak French, her native language, yet knows her better than anyone: “He understands everything non-verbal, but not the French language.” The interactions between artist and assistant have become as fluid and intuitive as a dance. When she paints two figures encircled within a pink womb-like shape, Jerry’s hand flashes by the camera to exchange red water for blue. When she shatters a plate in the kitchen, Jerry, unfazed, supplies the next for her to break. This brings to mind Eva Hesse’s “chaos structured as non-chaos”; an action normally coded as erratic or disruptive is actually commonplace in Bourgeois’s home (and is inherited from her father, she admits). It seems that Jerry and others close to Bourgeois play background roles to support her choreographed chaos. When Cornand speaks to Jerry individually in Chere Louise, he admits of Bourgeois, “mostly she’s a little girl” with a sly smile, and the film cuts to the artist searching shelves and asking, “Where is that little figure?” Subtle and telling transitions such as this one, which links Bourgeois personally to a vulnerable female caryatid, abound in Cornand’s films. This filmmaker is acutely aware of the complexities of Bourgeois as a character and as an artist, but she wants her audience to uncover them organically.
Like Jerry, Cornand sets her ego aside in order to allow Bourgeois’ psychology to reveal itself honestly. Often, Cornand feels more like a dear friend who happens to have a camera than a famed filmmaker. Seeing the three films in succession, as I did, collapses the gaps of time between them. I feel as if I’ve been spiraling in and out of her life, able to apply to my observation her well-known maxim “do, undo, redo,” and without a doubt to “form [my] own relationship with the artist,” as Cornand had hoped.
Laura Hunt is an artist living in Brooklyn.