Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Discovered in 1994 by French cavers Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel, and Christian Hillaire, the titular Cave (of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc) in Southern France houses rarely seen evidence of the artistic and social development of prehistoric man. The majority of the paintings covering numerous surfaces of the cave walls have been dated at over 30,000 years old making the Chauvet Cave one of the pre-eminent archaeological findings of recent times. The French Government, partially due to negative past experiences, quickly realised the cultural import of this site and moved to bar public access. Hence Herzog’s documentary provides us unprecedented first-hand visual access to these wonderful visions from the depths of time immemorial along with expert commentary from the researchers on the ground. This may well be the only glimpse we’re ever going to get of this fascinating piece of our collective past.
Cave is filmed in 3D (with 2D viewing options also available). Documentary certainly isn’t a field within which you’d expect to find this technology being successfully applied but Herzog and his director of photography Peter Zeitlinger capture something of substantial, even meditative beauty. The 3D rendering of the footage inside the cave adds a visual depth which allows us to experience the paintings in a way 2D renderings might not quite capture. We are able to see the play of light and shadow and the sense of movement and proportion establishing the obvious skill of artists from so long ago; artists who appear to have used the shape and curvature of the cave surfaces as a visual element in their works.
Although the undeniable allure of the central subject matter drives Cave, it remains just as undeniably a Werner Herzog feature. As well as making a thorough scan of the insides of the cave the not at all camera shy director also attempts a scan of the inner world of a number of the researchers working therein. These talking heads add to a ‘spiritual’ aesthetic already present in this piece. It seems even the most hardened scientist cannot encounter such an ancient rarity without being overcome by the profundity of the situation. Indeed, the director himself (and apparently the small crew he works with) identify with these feelings of wonderment and also wrestle with existential questions such an experience produces.
As is his want Herzog’s gaze occasionally fixates on demonstrably odd individuals, such as the ‘master perfumer’ he follows who is attempting to use his extraordinarily developed olfactory capacity to sniff out evidence of other prehistoric cave sites. This ‘character’ (as well as facets of others – such as a circus performer turned archaeologist) are reminiscent of Herzog’s fascination with other strange subjects as embodied in Grizzly Man’s Timothy Treadwell. Going thoroughly off the topical reservation Herzog closes Cave with some theatrically styled philosophical musings, using as his focal point a bask of albino crocodiles resident in an enclosure set up due to ecosystem temperature changes in the run-off from a nearby nuclear power plant?! Such pseudo-intellectualism might drive many a viewer to distraction but the director via this typically oblique segment successfully ties this documentary to his previous, if polar opposite, feature Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans which comprised a number of surreal interjections of ‘reptile-cam’ footage of dancing lizards and alligators. What was that well known quote about genius and madness again?
It may well be that Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is an excellent documentary, until such times as the filmmakers exit said Cave and their project ascends into cheap History Channel indulgence (many think so). However I find a peculiar joy in Herzog’s madder moments spliced together with such a serious subject. Whichever camp you fall into the bottom line is this: such an opportunity to observe the roots of our species is simply not to be missed.
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Local release date: 13 Oct 2011
Duration: 90 mins
Genre: Natural History Documentary
Director: Werner Herzog (2010)
With: Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Wulf Hein, Maria Malina, & Maurice Maurin.
Country: USA | UK | France
Distributor: Rialto Distribution