About Sarah: Rotterdam Review

International Film Festival Rotterdam
Admiring, illuminating profile of a taboo-pricking sculptor trades objectivity for intimate access.

Elisa Miller's documentary on British artist Sarah Lucas, a UK/Mexico co-production, world-premiered at the Netherlands event.

British sculptor Sarah Lucas made and has maintained her reputation with conceptual work that pushes boundaries and challenges taboos, but there's little in Elisa Miller's chummy documentary profile About Sarah to rattle many viewers' cages. Produced by Lucas's long-time dealer/representative Sadie Coles, it's an admiring if likeably unvarnished portrait of a former artistic wild-child slouching happily into a semi-respectable middle age. Exuding a distinct small-screen vibe, this genial and unfussily illuminating Mexico-UK collaboration will also find welcoming berths at non-fiction festivals over the coming months following its Rotterdam bow.

Director Miller won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2007 for her short Watching It Rain, and competed for the Tiger Awards at Rotterdam three years later with improvised mid-lengther Alicia, Go Yonder. She evidently enjoyed--in more ways than one--extended, close-up access to Lucas at home and farther afield, including an extended jaunt to the director's native Mexico in 2012, and then to Venice where Lucas's work was showcased at the prestigious Biennale in 2013.

Previewing that event, The Guardian described Lucas as "the former bad girl of Britart who is now, perhaps of all her peers, most frequently named by younger artists as an influence." Lucas first came to public attention with the 1988 London show Freeze alongside future art-world megastar Damien Hirst, the pair--along with the likes of Tracey Emin and Gary Hume--showing a flair for publicity and controversy over the next few years which saw them anointed as poster-kids for the new wave of Young British Artists (YBAs for short). About Sarah provides potted, discreet glimpses of Lucas's stimulant-fueled career, but the main bulk of the running-time shows her chatting garrulously away--invariably with cigarette and/or glass of wine in hand--or toiling away on her exhibitions. Crucially, she's always good company: perceptive, unpretentious and relaxed in Miller's presence.

Lucas has for several years resided in a rural home formerly occupied by the famed composer Benjamin Britten, and the director, acting as her own DP, is suitably attuned to the way locations can stimulate artistic expression. She also provides plenty of opportunity for us to examine Lucas's tactile, sensual creations, many of them inspired directly by the human body in general and its sexual organs in particular.

Polymorphously androgynous and frequently vehicles for Lucas's bawdy sense of humor these bulgingly phallic/pudendal so-called "Nuds" sculptures--sometimes made of stuffed pantyhose, sometimes cast in bronze--are placed in the context of Lucas's earlier breakthroughs such as 1992's Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab, which represented the female form with a table bearing a shawarma and a brace of sunny-side-ups. With its loose approach to chronology, geographical expansiveness and booze-haze ambiance, About Sarah has a casual, slightly haphazard feel that's of a piece with Lucas's own instinctive, experimental methods, even if Miller's results are much more conventional in their conformity to established documentary-profile norms.

One unfortunate trend to which the film closely adheres is the increasingly prevalent practice of superfluously adding English subtitles to perfectly comprehensible Anglophone dialogue. It's a minor if nagging distraction here, becoming a nuisance when sloppy spelling errors ("lightening," "mistified," "estate angents," "Pactrick Moore") make it onto the screen. And when a Spanish-language song is heard during the Mexico sojourn, these subtitles--which would have been useful for many viewers--are, for once, frustratingly absent.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Bright Future), January 27 2014
Production companies: Sadie Coles HQ, Kurimanzutto, Molinera Cine
Director / Screenwriter / Director of photography: Elisa Miller
Producers: Sadie Coles, Jose Kuri, Monica Manzutto
Editor: Paulina Del Paso
Music: Julian Simmons, Mariana Uribe
Sales: Sadie Coles HQ, London
No MPAA rating, 74 minutes


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