Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Directed by Werner Herzog
IFC Films/History Channel
90 mins. PG (in 3D)
* * ½
In 1994 three spelunkers plunged into a cave in the Ardeche River Valley of southern France; little did they know what awaited them. When their headlamps hit the wall of a limestone chamber they saw things no one had seen for 25-30,000 years. The underground cavity now known as Chauvet (show-vAy) Cave--named for one of the spelunkers--is one of the most spectacular collections of prehistoric art ever found. Its glories surpass even those of Lascaux, also located in southern France. The art is so impressive that scholars have begun to speculate that more was at stake than ritual, that perhaps an artistic aesthetic was present in ancient humans.
Filmmaker Werner Herzog was one of the few individuals allowed to view the cave, which was preserved by a fluke landslide that sealed its entrance for many millennia. He and his three-member film crew reveal an enchanted world of horses, panthers, hyenas, handprints, and fanciful figures sketched in charcoal upon the limestone walls. Several of the figures are akin to ancient abstraction, and quite a few anticipate Picasso by tens of thousands of years. Even more remarkable, some of the drawings were rendered to take advantage of curves, indentations, and varying shapes of the rock. They seem to leap off the cliff face, a compelling reason to film--as Herzog did--in 3D. (I’m not a big fan of 3D, a technology that’s still far from perfection, but for once I applaud the decision to use it.) Cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger lovingly reveals the cave’s magic for those of us (nearly anyone who isn’t a French scientist) who will never venture beyond the cave’s locked steel vault doors.
If only Herzog had left the paintings speak for themselves. This is a so-so film that should have been a great one. Herzog is like Michael Moore in that he can’t keep himself out of his own films. The people who used the cavern appear to have venerated bears, another Herzog fascination (See Grizzly Man, 2005). I mention this because Herzog’s presence in this film is close to unbearable. He seems to fancy himself a modern-day philosopher, but it’s hard to suppress the gag reflex for some of New Age pap and nostrums he dispenses. Mostly, though, his comments are just intrusive, which is also how I’d characterize the original score from composer Ernst Reijseger. It’s loaded with Wagnerian drama and a lot of it is very interesting as music, but it’s simply inappropriately operatic for the subject matter. (And it’s made doubly so by Herzog’s insistence that we contemplate the images and their possible meanings with the hushed reverence he fails to heed.) Because Herzog insists on cluttering the film with extraneous material that is neither enlightening nor needed, this film clocks in at 90 minutes when it could have easily been half that length. There is, for example, a spectacular panel of four horses running astride each other; Herzog shows this ad infinitum as a backdrop for his own musings. He also tells us so much about the challenges of filming in the cave that I wanted to shout “Save it for the film festival Q & A.”
If you can find a 3D theater showing this, by all means go; the film deserves to be seen on a big screen and in the format it was made. If you rent it, though, you could do worse than turn off the sound. Herzog seems to think he’s a shaman; much of the time he’s just a sham. --LV