Posts Tagged ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’

Every once in a while a film comes along which bears so little relation to conventional cinematic fare that it’s difficult to know where to start when it comes to talking about it. Such a film is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary from revered German director Werner Herzog. I caught this movie down at the local art house (I must admit I went partly to dispel my image as ‘the Woody Allen guy’), which necessitated seeing it in 2D. Yes, this is an example of 3D arthouse cinema (facilities permitting).


Quite why investing in a 3D version of a film which is essentially about a 2D artform was felt necessary I can’t quite work out – but as I say, I haven’t seen it. Anyway: in 1994 a trio of French explorers happened upon a previously-sealed cave system in the heart of their own country. Venturing inside, they came upon a remarkable collection of cave paintings, depicting deer, horses, lions, bears, and other animals. But what made the paintings in the Chauvet Caves truly unique was their age: scientific tests proved that the paintings were vastly old, some dating back as far as 32,000 years.

Such is the priceless value of these paintings that the cave itself is not open to the public and even scientific visits are severely restricted. For the movie, Werner Herzog and a small camera team are granted unprecedented access to the cave, along with a team of scientists from different disciplines. The film depicts the environment within, and goes on to examine some of the pictures in detail, while exploring the little we know of the culture that produced them.

It is fair to say that not very much happens, and if there is a linear progression of ideas through the documentary it was not especially clear to me. Yet the movie manages to be a compelling watch, but in a slightly odd way. Given that the act of going to the cinema consists of going to a darkened space and looking at flickering images on the wall, and that this film is about a group of people who basically do just that, you could argue that Cave of Forgotten Dreams is on some level about the nature of cinema – or art – itself. Central throughout, but never spoken, is the key question of why the cave paintings were made in the first place – are they simply aesthetic, or do they have a ritual or religious function? The same question could be asked of all art, of course, but what gives the Chauvet paintings their strange power is their very antiquity: they were made when the very nature of being human was different.

The point is repeatedly made that the cave is, effectively, a time capsule, surviving to the present day through a kind of miracle. Visiting the cave is like travelling back in time, with visitors extremely limited in their ability to interact with the environment. (The metal walkway they are required never to step off rather reminded me of the similar element in Ray Bradbury’s similarly-themed story A Sound of Thunder.) Time is referred to a number of times – ‘unlike us, the makers of the paintings were not locked into history,’ Herzog intones as part of his narration, an observation that really requires some thought (luckily the leisurely pace of the movie allows you time to do this). The narration is really more of an incantation, which Herzog intones carefully and drily. For much of the movie there is a sense of a journey into mystic and arcane places, a different world of different thoughts.

That said, this is not a heavy or highbrow movie, with Herzog even managing to find a few moments of dry comedy along the way. ‘Now I show you how to kill a horse,’ beams a French Einstein-lookalike before demonstrating a spear thrower, not very well. ‘I guess prehistoric man was better at that than you, right?’ Herzog enquires from off-camera. Later we meet a master perfumier whose method of discovering new caves is to stick his nose into holes in the ground. Towards the end, the movie’s general thoughtfulness spirals off into the realms of the tangibly insane, as Herzog makes a visit to a local crocodile farm (where he’s particularly interested in the albino crocs). ‘If we showed these mutant crocodiles the paintings in the cave,’ he asks, reasonably enough, ‘what would they make of them?’ Werner, I do not feel qualified to answer that question.

The movie is thoughtful and atmospheric (aided by an appropriately otherworldly score), and oddly challenging: it poses questions, in part by its very nature, but makes no attempt to answer them, and this might be a little disconcerting (if not actually frustrating). Throughout, the paintings themselves retain an aura of awe and mystery: as, really, does the cinema, when someone like Herzog is in the director’s chair.

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