Cave of Forgotten Dreams2011

Director: Werner Herzog

Stars: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier

Release Company: IFC Films

MPAA Rating: NR

Image 01

I frequently feel like an alien in the U.S.--that I should have grown up in Paris with its political, cinematic, and artistic temperament. The art house cinemas serve as a refuge and I absolutely love the art museums. Everyone raves about the Louvre, but Paris serves as a base for many other museums that house a treasure trove of my favorite impressionists and post-impressionists.

Yet, the sum total of Paris' incredible art museums can't compare with the treasures in France's most valuable art gallery--discovered by scientists inside the Chauvet Cave in 1994. Obscured by crystalline stalactites and stalagmites and floors covered with animal bones are a breath-taking menagerie of cave lions, mammoths, and bears along with skillfully crafted depictions of galloping horses and bison.

The paintings in this southern French cave had been sealed off by a fallen rock face, preserving a football sized enclosure for an estimated 32,000 years. The Neanderthal artists were anything but primitive in capturing the essence of the fauna of their day. They make Picasso look like a raw amateur!

Not only did these Paleolithic cave painters pre-date modern cubists, they even had their own Andy Warhol. One pop art auteur exhibits a series of multiple red palm prints (each uniquely marked with a broken digit) in one section of the gallery. Filmmaker Werner Herzog observes that another early artist demonstrates cinematic movement by depicting horses with eight legs.

Obtaining access to these paintings is virtually impossible. The French government has vigilantly strived to preserve these caves from the type of damage done to previous prehistoric sites. French authorities limit entrance to small team of scientists for study just a few days each year, but now intrepid filmmaker Werner Herzog has made viewing this magnificent cave art accessible.

He's an ideal promoter for such a venture, having a vast repertoire of human spirit work ranging from Antartica to South American jungles to Alaska. Somehow Herzog was able to persuade French authorities to allow him to film inside the cave alongside the scientists and even get special permission to enter for additional time with only his small film crew. The fact that a replica Chauvet tourist attraction is in the planning stages may explain why authorities granted access. Perhaps they envisioned Herzog's film as promotional material. Or they may have thought this would serve as more ammunition for attaining UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Whatever the reason, the resulting documentary titled Cave of Forgotten Dreams records the cave's wonder and beauty for posterity. Since the original cave artists incorporated the curvatures of the walls into their paintings, Herzog wisely decides to record the experience with 3-D cameras. Like Herzog I'm not a fan of 3-D, but this time it works wonderfully--from the film's opening shot that takes us through a neighboring vineyard to close-up meditations of the incredible horse and bison musculature artistically enhanced by the cave's irregular canvas.

Herzog narrates throughout and includes interviews with paleontologists, archaeologists, art experts, and even a perfume sniffer. Near the end he invokes profound fears about freaky albino crocodiles evolving from a nearby nuclear power plant, but the most mesmerizing moments come from the visuals.

The strongest sequences occur while simply viewing the paintings without narration (though I would have preferred a more subdued new age music/heartbeat soundtrack accompaniment). But these are small quibbles compared to the unique opportunity to view definitive evidence demonstrating how humans have been intrinsically connected to art since the dawn of time.

And that goes far beyond the scope of all the great art museums of Paris!

Bookmark and Share