Cave of Forgotten Dreams
- Posted: 18th Mar 2011
- Category: Reviews
- Tags: werner herzog,  3d,  chauvet,  france,  art
by Matt Strachan
The crusty polyester, sensible fleeces, and plain pre-fab offices of assorted archaeologists, in various drab blushes of grey and brown, were probably not at the forefront of James Cameron’s mind when he revitalised 3D by dreaming up a Pandora’s box office of bright blue aliens, deep metaphor (unobtanium anyone?) and billion dollar domination. And yet they sit comfortably, in blistering stereoscopic detail, within Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams – a cinematic shudder of awe and wonder that opens the Chauvet Cave’s surprisingly modern steel door and delves deep into the core of art, history, and humanness itself.
Sealed off from the outside world by a collapsed rock face, the cave in the south of France has preserved paintings as old as 35,000 years in near pristine condition – works of art that may potentially represent the creation of art itself. Limited since its discovery in 1994 to just a handful of scientists, Herzog is the first filmmaker to be granted access after agreeing, in his inimitable style, to become an employee of the French government for one fully taxable euro. The film documents the director’s exploration of the cave and its paintings, restricted by a four man crew, adapted 3D camera technology and the narrow labyrinth of metal catwalks that span the cave.
The result – to take the ‘places where dreams happen’ metaphor and run with it – is a patchy, restless night of a film. After a superb opening that captures the awe of the cave as well as the possibilities of 3D technology, you can almost sense Herzog fidgeting and looking for something, or someone, new and interesting to engage with. But with the cave and its paintings cemented centre stage as the documentary’s main character, there is little room or reason for the usual cast of idiosyncratic personalities that find their way into Herzog’s other work. So encounters with a circus-performer-cum-archaeologist, and a flute-playing faux-Inuit are only brief, token moments at best in a narrative that cannot, and arguably shouldn’t, escape the gravitational pull of the Chauvet Cave itself.
Every tool at Herzog’s disposal is thrown into the mix here though, and these few anxious twists and turns are a price worth paying for the whole that ultimately manifests before the closing credits. The three dimensions truly deliver, thrusting you into a tangible world that would otherwise be off limits and putting meat on the bones of the cave and its remains. For possibly the first time it will make you lament what you can’t see beyond the bounds of the frame – no small achievement. And if that weren’t enough, Herzog attempts to engage almost every other sense with sounds, descriptions of smell, and assertions aimed at infecting the imagination.
Immersed in this land of scientists, yet surrounded by art, Herzog gnaws away (as he has done in much of his previous work) at the nature of humanness, and through a sublime crescendo of a finale almost illuminates a higher state of consciousness in which the nature of art as a spiritual communion between humans through time peeks into view. If this is the case, then perhaps art cannot truly exist without science, its geeks and the drab rainbow of practical clothing that inevitably comes with them. As 3D and digital technology continue to dominate the landscape of cinema, this certainly would seem to hold true.
So although James Cameron may not have had the creation of art (or crusty polyester) at the top of his priority list, he has inadvertently given new life to a technology that, in the right hands, has the potential to push film forward as an art form. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, by using 3D to close the gap between audience and experience, has certainly done that.
Werner Herzog, Canada / USA / France / Germany / UK 2010, 90 mins German / French
Read our interview with Werner Herzog here.
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