Brigitte Cornand, Grabigouji: La Vie de la disparition (Grabigouji: Life of Disappearance, 2012), digital video, color, sound, 47 minutes. Louise Bourgeois.

“EVERYTHING I DO WAS INSPIRED by my early life,” Louise Bourgeois divulged to Artforum on the occasion of her 1982 retrospective at MoMA, the venue’s first to fete a female artist. The statement, couched in bold cursive beside a photograph of a young Bourgeois boating with her governess, cemented the orthodox line about her art, promulgated by critics who mapped her work onto her words. Read through Bourgeois’s backstory, her sculptural forms all source to childhood dramas: the various triangulations among herself, her obliging mother, her imperious father, and the mistress he kept. Rehearsed without question or pause, Bourgeois’s biography stiffens into a sort of straitjacket, intent on stuffing prismatic, paradigm-shifting work into pat Oedipal narratives.

The tense complicity between Bourgeois the persona and Bourgeois the artist animates Brigitte Cornand’s trio of documentaries, filmed during the final fourteen years of the artist’s life. The longer of the three—C’est le murmure de l’eau qui chante (The Whisper of the Whistling Water, 2002) and La Rivière gentile (The Sweet River, 2007)—converge on Bourgeois’s West Twenty-Second Street brownstone. Shots of the nonagenarian painting by her window or sketching grids in blue Sharpie thread through installation views of early works, pages from yellowed journals, and traversals of her cluttered yet kempt apartment. The most recent, Grabigouji: La Vie de la disparition (Grabigouji: Life of Disappearance, 2012), consists of recorded phone conversations between Cornand and Bourgeois played over still shots of nature and places from the artist’s past: the river Bièvre where she attempted suicide, the building on Boulevard Saint-Germain that her family called home.

For an artist famously beset by debilitating depressions, the Bourgeois who emerges is surprisingly calm. Old age, it seems, has faded her emotions to paler hues: less the anxious saturation of Matisse’s The Red Studio, 1911; more the watery red of the gouache she favors. Cornand’s style is casual and unobtrusive, her digital camera handheld or steady, depending on the demands of the shot. Rarely does she prod Bourgeois to decode or disclose. When the artist reveals, she does so of her own accord, her recollections prompted by photographs or surfacing unaided, like the melodies of the half-remembered songs she hums.

If these films have a secondary subject, beyond Bourgeois herself, it’s how an artist whose work so hinges on memory adapts as those memories grow gauzy and leach at the edges. “I’m feeling a bit broody,” she tells Cornand in gravelly French over a fixed shot of a tawny moon. “What bothers me is that I try to remember things from the past, but I can’t seem to piece it together.” One of Bourgeois’s quirks is a fondness for dictionary definitions, which she asks Cornand to read aloud from Le Petit Larousse as aide-mémoire. “Rebus,” Cornand recites as Bourgeois transcribes in her notebook, “drawings or signs that must be deciphered phonetically.” The definition—a metaphor, perhaps, for Bourgeois’s diffusely allusive forms—cues an anecdote from the artist’s past. Its protagonist, predictably: her short-tempered father.

As one might expect, Bourgeois remains fixated on her family saga. A lengthy discursion on tapestries turns to her father’s betrayal (yellow, it so happens, is the color of cuckoldry) and her perceived failure to measure up to her mother. In a recurring sequence, Cornand captures Bourgeois at her worktable as the artist strings evocative fragments in voice-over. “The floods in Sologne. The wet Paris pavements by night. The beaches in Trouville, Houlgate, Villers, Cabourg, Honfleur,” Bourgeois intones in French, her back turned to the camera. Cornand echoes her lead’s circular sense of time by filming excerpts from Bourgeois’s diaries in confused chronological order. An April 2001 entry declares “no thing to do with the values de Marcel Duchamp” beside two hastily sketched urinals; in the ensuing entry, dated June 1974, Bourgeois grieves the loss of her husband, Robert.

At times, Cornand indulges the myth that Bourgeois’s art issues from a purely personal etiology. “Once upon a time there was a father, a mother, a child, a river, bridges, a mistress, and cars. Therein lies the tragedy,” the filmmaker avers at Grabigouji’s close, her camera trained on a sunlit country road. Such statements better cloud than clarify Bourgeois’s achievement. More interesting are the moments that reveal how the artist’s fugue-like fable circles around, but never quite settles on, her work. Watteau and Odilon Redon pepper a meditation on the Bièvre; a musing on memory leads to mentions of Henri Michaux, René Magritte, and Eugène Ionesco’s “La Cantatrice chauve.” When her rehearsed drama relents, new interpretive avenues appear. In the case of Bourgeois, it’s best not to always take the artist at her word.

Courtney Fiske

Brigitte Cornand’s The Sweet River, The Whisper of the Whistling Water, and Grabigouji: Life of Disappearance play Saturday, April 20, at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York.