Hidden wonders revealed from 30,000 years ago
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, May 6, 2011
With 3-D now the purview of every cinematic showman from James Cameron to those miscreants who brought us “The Last Airbender,” it’s about time the technology reached the hands of an artist.
With “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Werner Herzog — obsessive auteur, skeptical poet, Teutonic Voice of God — uses the format to plunge audiences into the prehistoric past, allowing them access to a world that has been invisible to humans for more than 30,000 years. To call “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” a great movie isn’t just an understatement, it’s a wildly inaccurate way to describe an experience that, in its immersive sensory pleasures and climactic journey of discovery, more closely resembles an ecstatic trance.
As Herzog explains in his familiar Bavarian drawl, in the 1990s scientists discovered a large cave in southern France that for more than 30,000 years had hidden paintings, animal remains and geologic accretions. Careful not to contaminate the atmosphere with human exhalations, the French government forbids visitors to what is now known as Chauvet Cave. But in 2010, Herzog and his tiny crew persuaded authorities to let them spend a week filming in the cavern’s chambers, for just a few hours every day.
He emerged with a breathtaking tour of art that, in its formal sophistication, dynamism and rhythmic lines, looks as bold and new as Cezanne’s work must have looked in the 1860s. Illuminating the cave’s walls with low, battery-powered lights, using 3-D to capture the interior’s curved corners and biomorphic bulges, Herzog allows viewers to marvel at how prehistoric artists used those natural shapes to animate their drawings, giving the bison, lions and mammoths they drew the movement of Eadweard Muybridge’s horses. Moving through the cave, Herzog discovers distinctive hand prints, as well as footprints of an 8-year-old boy alongside paw prints made by a wolf. Did they walk side by side? Herzog speculates. Or were the prints made thousands of years apart?
Such are the cosmic questions posed by “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which periodically takes the audience out of the cave to the outside world, where Herzog interviews the archeologists and curators who have made Chauvet their own obsession. For the filmmaker who has explored the physical and psychic extremes of human experience in such documentaries as “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World,” Chauvet provides yet more fodder for the enduring questions that fuel his best work. “Will we ever be able to understand the vision of the artist over the abyss of time?” Herzog intones at one point. (Later, in typical Herzogian fashion, the filmmaker also adds a perverse postscript, filming mutant albino crocodiles living near a nuclear facility some miles away from Chauvet, suggesting that we’re in the process of becoming someone’s unfathomable past right now.)
The only false note in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is a musical score that too often threatens to overwhelm the soaring visuals on screen with a loud, over-insistent choir. But keep your eyes on those visuals, and reap supreme rewards that last long past the film’s modest running time. As startlingly new and even familiar as the Chauvet drawings may strike the present-day eye, one of the mysteries of “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is just what their purpose was. But by the end of Herzog’s tour, he has provided ample evidence that they were less a form of expression than of spiritual connection. Transcendent, provocative and deeply humbling, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is a wonderful film, in the most literal sense of that word. It inspires not just delight and awe, but profound gratitude.
Contains nothing objectionable. In English and French with English subtitles.