Director and filmmaker, Werner Herzog’s latest, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is a strange mix of flighty pseudo-intellectual reverie and jaw-dropping documentary. Filmed in the famously inaccessible Chauvet Cave in southern France with 3-D enhancement, and sprinkled with the usual eccentric Hertzogian locals, the movie cannot fail to entertain and simultaneously irritate — just like the great man himself.
Indeed, it was in instant hit at its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2010 where it was snatched up by IFC Films which now hold rights to all distribution in the US.
The cave of Chauvet was closed to the public almost immediately after its astounding accidental discovery in 1994. A treasure trove of jaw-dropping art and crystalized bone fragments, the cave was sealed off in order to avoid repeating the same problems that occurred in the caves at Lascaux where lights and air-conditioning are believed to have caused an insidious mold.
Since the closing, only a handful of scientists have had access to the cave which houses some 300 paintings of mammoths, rhinos, lions, and horses (and a single pornographic pendant of a woman having it on with a bull). Said to be nearly twice as old as previously discovered cave paintings, the art at Chauvet dates back approximately 30 to 32,000 years, making these Homo Sapiens images the earliest recorded works of art, and curiously, placing their creation alongside the simultaneous existence of Neanderthals.
The inaccessibility coupled with the obvious draw of history and art would make any movie that featured the cave, and its veritable underground museum, a slam dunk for any filmmaker. But Herzog, with his inimitable style and cinematic gifts, brings his own art to the project, first by gaining permission to bring a film crew into the protected landmark, and then by producing his film under arduous constraints of time, space, and with limited equipment.
Thriving as he does on difficulty, Herzog has managed, once again, to create an affable, if highly effected movie that uses 3-D (famously scorned by him in the past) to glorious and sometimes comic effect.
First of all, the 3-D adds a LOT to the scenes in the cave, showing off the layered beauty and complexity of the stalactites and stalagmites along with the drama of deep perspective as we look through the cave’s narrow chambers or follow the incredible delicacy of shimmering curtains formed of crystalline structures which hang in thin pleats and swaths like theater curtains. And it also adds verity to Herzog’s patter about the cave paintings, swelling and bending along the cave walls, overlapping and appearing in the lamplights, as he points out, creating an animation like a sort of “proto-cinema.” (Would that he had thought to reproduce the flickering effect of the torch flames that the cave painters would have seen! But, sadly, he didn’t.)
The 3-D also makes the viewer feel present within the depths of the cave, and one feels that she can fairly stumble upon the crystallized bones that are scattered for miles along the cave floors.
That said, the film seems to offer a clever commentary on the limits of 3-D effects — the interviews with scientists sitting or standing around come across as silly in 3-D after the breathtaking underground scenes. And the spear chucking demonstration seems downright hilarious with the spear coming out of the screen as the scientist thrusts it at the audience.
Along with his insightful foray into 3-D, and the (for Herzog) de rigeur assemblage of local talent (a perfumer who sniffs the cliff sides for underground passages, a charmingly doofy scientist who clumsily demonstrates a spear sling, an anthropologist who plays a barely passible “The Star Spangled Banner” on wispy bone flute and an explorer who, upon seeing the cave paintings, dreams of lions) there is the matter of incessant speculation and exaggerated wonderment which takes up a great deal of the documentary’s “expert” testimony.
Ernst Reijseger (who has worked with him on other films including “The White Diamond” and “The Wild Blue Yonder”) has created an annoying soundtrack that adds unnecessary heft to frequent interruptions of breathless mysticism.
In fact, the scientists and experts seem to compete with Herzog himself in the arena of spinning wonky riffs on the “dawn of the human spirit.”
Spotting a wolf track next to one which looks like that of an eight year old boy, Herzog asks in his signature drone:
Did the wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or were their prints made thousands of years apart? We’ll never know.
Similar speculation about what the cave may have smelled like, and and what the cave’s visitors must have made of their own shadows follows.
Particularly giggle-inducing is Herzog’s rather long-winded afterthought tagged onto the end of the movie like a mistake, wherein he discusses with doomsday insinuation, a nearby nuclear plant where mutant albino crocodiles swim in the warm runoff.
“Are we,” he muses, “truly the crocodiles who look back into the abyss of time?”
Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams is playing across New York, including in 3-D at IFC Center, Cobble Hill Cinema, BAM Rose Cinemas and Kew Gardens Cinema.