Just shy of 97, sculptor Louise Bourgeois is irresistible in the revealing documentary "Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine" by Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach, writes reviewer Sheila Farr.

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Yes, yes, yes.

That’s the answer you should give yourself if you are wondering: “Should I go see that new Louise Bourgeois documentary at SIFF?” We’ve been handed so many contrived movie fictions about artists in the studio, from Camille Claudel to Jackson Pollock, that it does the soul good to see the real thing.

Filmmakers Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach mixed archival photos and footage with revealing contemporary interviews to assemble the film “Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine.” Between 1993 and 2007 they taped Bourgeois at her Brooklyn studio and Manhattan home, gradually getting behind the artist’s fierce persona.

Bourgeois comes on like a wily little fox, dodging and feigning, spouting Delphic aphorisms and dominating the people around her — not that anyone’s complaining. Her studio assistant of 30 years, Jerry Gorovoy, plays the role of patience personified; Bourgeois’ son Jean-Louis calmly tracks the maternal storms; Museum of Modern Art curator Deborah Wye tells us that soon after her first encounter with Bourgeois, “I totally was in her power.”

It’s easy to see why: Bourgeois is a pistol. Just shy of 97, she has long been a major force in the artworld, easily one of the most innovative sculptors of her time.

An amazing retrospective of her work was organized in London at the Tate Modern last year and is now traveling in the U.S., on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles through Jan. 26. In Seattle, we are fortunate to have her psychologically savvy fountain “Father and Son” and two elegant “Eye Benches” at the Olympic Sculpture Park. Bourgeois’ huge, iconic spider sculptures (referenced in the film’s title) are prominently sited in cities around the world.

Some of the sculptures Bourgeois makes are assertively body-centric and sexual, while others are walled-off tableaus that can only be viewed through gaps and mirrors, introverted and delicately suggestive. These extremes perfectly sum up the artist’s character and give us some perspective on the twists and turns of a life that’s spanned nearly a century.

Born in Paris on Dec. 25, 1911, Bourgeois’ earliest memories are of the first World War. Visiting her wounded father at the hospital as a young child, she was shocked by the sight of maimed soldiers with blown-off limbs and pieced-together faces. Those images still haunt her work. Another trauma came in the form of a betrayal. Bourgeois discovered that a governess living with her family for many years after the war was in fact her father’s mistress. She never got over her rage at the multifaceted deception.

As a young woman in the 1930s, Bourgeois earned a degree in philosophy, then went on to study art, rubbing elbows with members of the Parisian avant garde. She met American art historian Robert Goldwater and was smitten — his character was the opposite of her father’s, Bourgeois tells us. She married him and they moved to the United States.

Sculpture was a man’s world when Bourgeois came to New York in 1938. She worked on her art and tried to conform to life as a wife and mother, but after the death of her father in 1951 she fell into a deep depression. Her son Jean-Louis recalls Bourgeois taking to her bed for weeks, unable to function. More than a decade went by before she got back to her artwork, yet it wasn’t until after her husband’s death in 1973 that her career really took off. Bourgeois talks about overcoming her training to be likable (which she calls “a pain in the neck.”) “You have to be very aggressive to be a sculptor,” she tells us. “It’s the anger that makes me work.”

That may be true, but the filmmakers refuse to leave it at that. By a certain point in the documentary, while talking about her early life, Bourgeois finally drops her defenses and we see all that fierceness dissolve into tears. After a speechless few moments, she stands up and walks off camera.

The imagery of alienation and longing that Bourgeois portrays in her work, especially in the relationship between parent and child, takes on special meaning when you know something about her life.

Co-directors Cajori and Wallach did a fine job of assembling this tough and tender portrait of Bourgeois — clearly a challenging task. Unfortunately, Cajori died of cancer in 2006, before the documentary was completed. With her crew, Wallach finished the film and dedicated it to Cajori.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com