Caveman's Delight: Herzog's Enigmatic Musings Have an Emotional Effect on Ryan Gilbey
Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (U)
dir Werner Herzog
If there is one thing we know about Werner Herzog, it is that he's not a man to shrink from a challenge. He traversed the Sahara in Fata Morgana, penetrated the depths of the Peruvian rainforest in Aguirre, Wrath of God, and proved in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call--New Orleans that Nicolas Cage still has a few thespian bones in his body: is there nothing that fazes him? In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he ventures into territory that has proved hazardous for many film-makers before him--3-D. There is an obvious irony in employing this jazzy format in a documentary about prehistoric cave paintings. But while it does heighten contour and texture, 3-D cannot take credit for the film's successes, any more than it can be blamed for its flaws.
Herzog travelled to the Antarctic for his previous documentary, Encounters at the End of the World. The new picture takes him to a location that has accommodated even fewer human visitors, at least in the past 10,000 years. The signs are that, even before then, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave (named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, one of the speleologists who discovered it in the south of France in 1994) was a busy workshop for artists of the Palaeolithic age. They daubed, painted and possibly worshipped there for a good 20,000 years, give or take. But since a rockslide sealed off the entrance in the 8th millennium BC, business has been on the slow side.
It would have stayed like that, had Chauvet and his colleagues not been scouting the area, attentive to those rock-face draughts that are the cold breath of hidden caves. Once the site had been uncovered, the French government refused all filming requests, wary of the damage that could be inflicted by human contact. Then Herzog called. Here is a man who has persuaded hundreds of people to risk their lives and their sanity in the pursuit of his cinematic vision. Was there ever any answer open to the French but "oui"?
The plain wonder of the paintings in close-up, with hand-held lights providing shaky illumination, justifies the entire project. …