A fiery, well-read mind in a small, wrinkly vessel–and, occasionally, a hot pink fake fur coat–Louise Bourgeois muses knowingly: "My emotions are completely inappropriate to my size." Appropriately then, her most famous artworks are monumental symbols of melancholy, nostalgia and trauma, a kind of therapy worked through on a massive scale. The stroke of genius in Marion Cajori (who died in 2006 while the film was still being edited) and Amei Wallach's documentary is filming Bourgeois' artworks in a way that conveys their imposing emotive presence. In the opening scene their camera approaches a circular room-sized installation in a series of curving, see-sawing dolly shots that echo the outer walls of the piece. Later, a dizzying spinning shot taken from beneath one of Bourgeois' iconic works–a giant spider sculpture named after her mother–captures the dark, primal fascination these creepy and calming creatures evoke. In such moments, Cajori and Wallach's long-titled film extends the effects of Bourgeois' artworks as much as it prods their sources.
In wordy yet accessible interviews–delivered in verbose English that still bares the charming edge of a French accent and, occasionally, lapses into more flowing digressions spoken in her native language–Bourgeois discusses formative factors like her childhood in war-scarred France, her father's affair with her governess and her experiences as a female artist, but refuses to endorse strict historical, psychoanalytic or gendered interpretations. She concedes that her work is about pleasure and pain–or, more precisely, the pleasure of overcoming her pain –but why pain? "Why pain? Because it's obvious," she tells an interviewer matter-of-factly. "Okay, that's it. Sorry to say it's obvious, but you have to work a little yourself." This funny moment encapsulates why Bourgeois is a terrific artist and thrilling documentary subject. She's tiny, and yet behind her small, coiling frame lurks the immense form of her experiences and achievements, a life that has seen most of our modern era from the fairly fascinating vantage point of an outsider at the highest reaches of the art world. It also speaks to a balance of intellect, fame and modesty, a charming smile that deflects the flattery of being addressed as a know-it-all, then volleys a pandering question with a quizzical deadpan.
Cajori and Wallach's film, here, gets at the heart of what makes Bourgeois a great artist (indeed, what makes anyone a great artist): her work reveals as much about her as our reactions to it reveal about us. This point is exemplified later, when art activists The Guerrilla Girls claim Bourgeois (against her stated non-affiliation with feminism) as one of their great successes in the crusade to forge a more inclusive art community in New York. In the early 90s, her work was added to an otherwise all-male exhibition at the Guggenheim after sustained protests organized by the Guerrilla Girls. How poetically just, then, that this film should be released over a decade later in conjunction with a major retrospective of Bourgeois' work at the very same museum (opening June 27).