By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” filmmaker Werner Herzog’s exclusive peek at the Chauvet Cave discovered by Jean-Marie Chauvet and fellow speleologists (cave mavens) Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire in 1994, makes a point. The more wondrous the find, the more questions it poses. This look back 30,000 years asks the really hard ones.
Following Herzog’s poetic camera through this now hyper-protected cavern in the Ardèche section of Southern France, you can’t form the inquiries quickly enough. The wall paintings are stunning, exhibiting an artistic skill heretofore thought to be attained in much later times. Who were these people? What did they think? What did they wish?
Hmm, imagine…thirty thousand years ago, all pretty much confirmed by carbon dating. Archeologists from among the select group of scientists and intellectuals given privy to the discovery theorize the cave and its drawings were preserved by a landslide that sealed the opening. Frozen in time, the pictures even include some animals now long extinct.
Coated in calcified cobwebs, bones of animals—mostly cave bears—decorate the floor between the stalagmites. There are no human remains, which leads anthropologists to speculate that our Ice Age ancestors didn’t reside here, but perhaps used the artistically festooned space for rituals. The whimsical, staring eye of a painted lion is dumbfounding.
Via Herzog’s documentary, we are invited to what has hitherto been a very private party. And, in an extreme articulation of that prissy aunt’s living room covered in clear plastic, it is shown how, to preserve the historic treasure, the most modern techniques have been blended in with the antiquity. It’s look don’t touch taken to its nth degree.
Diamond plate paths cautiously cross the floor of the long cave, extending some 1,300 feet. Carefully perched lights allow study of the approximately 300 paintings, only one or two of which depict the human form, and that still remains uncertain. But just to baffle us, there are a couple of purposely placed handprints…sort of a Kilroy was here thing.
In a voice more passionate than engaging, Mr. Herzog narrates, at first in an instructive mode. Then he mixes it up with theories and suppositions from several experts, and finally shepherds it the rest of the way in a gauzy, philosophical reverie. For now, new empirical information about this latest 8th wonder of the world won’t be coming quickly.
And therein lies the ironic rub. Without flourish or duplication of expert assumption, a layman’s guide to Chauvet Cave could be told in 30 minutes. Adding conjecture and theory brings the running time to about an hour. However, to give it motion picture breadth, Herzog stretches it yet another 30 percent.
While we hate to be Philistines, especially when asked to be a part of such a scholarly clambake, that’s time we could have spent trying to figure out the meaning of life and such. Which, true enough, is where Mr. Herzog attempts to take this opportunity. It’s his baby…the cause celebre he has seized upon to devotedly contemplate, if not explain.
With cello and oboe melodies providing a haunting haze to the doings, we are ensconced in the aura of this great secret revealed. And for a second it seems totally within the realm of possibility that somewhere here is the big key. But even if not, we are aware of what our interest brings to the picnic, applauding ourselves for being a part of the human quest.
Most of Herzog’s lovingly expounded suppositions and musings are cerebrally top drawer. As are the thoughts contributed by a who’s who of experts in their field. This includes Dominique Baffier, archeologist specializing in Paleolithic cave art and now curator at Chauvet Cave, and pre-historian Jean Clottes, leader of the research team.
Also sharing often witty as well as wise opinions are, rock art specialist/archaeologist Professor Jean-Michel Geneste; archeologist Carole Fritz; artist and archeologist Gilles Tosello; paleontologist Michel Philippe; and, offering a fancifully unique if not scientific perspective on how things might have smelled, is master perfumer Maurice Maurin.
Differing in theory as they may, these are pretty smart folks, and being in their company should at least prove a good palate cleanser between episodes of “Dancing with the Stars” and “N.J. Housewives.” Yet, with only so much solid information available to the casual observer, the film’s repetitious nature only reaffirms the need for more enlightenment.
All the same, while overlong and perhaps more ponderous than our patience might warrant, if the cave artist can forgive us for waiting 30,000 thousand years to attend his or her showing, surely we can spare an extra thirty minutes. And, considering its ennobling grandeur, we shouldn’t wait another 30,000 years to explore “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” rated G, is an IFC Films release directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, featuring commentary from Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste and Carole Fritz. Running time: 90 minutes
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