Cave of Forgotten Dreams review / Susan Granger
Such synchronicity! Coinciding with the publication of Jean Auel's "The Land of Painted Caves," in which her Ice Age heroine Ayla explores many painted caverns in the south of France, including the extraordinary Grotte Chauvet in Pont d'Arc, comes Werner Herzog's documentation of that stunning subterranean gallery of 300 animal images that were created about 32,000 years ago.
Discovered in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet, this remarkably pristine artistry marks "the beginnings of the modern human soul," as the German director/producer/narrator Herzog puts it, although, curiously, human beings are rarely depicted, indicating, perhaps, a lack of self-awareness in that Paleolithic era. When humans are drawn, they're usually women, fertility symbols engaging in sexual acts, often with animals.
What abound are spectacular depictions of deer, bear, bison, lions, mammoths and woolly rhinos. Due to the delicate nature and age of these drawings and fear of contamination, there are bureaucratic and governmental access restrictions. So Herzog interweaves various intriguing opinions from experts who were permitted into the heavily guarded Grotte Chauvet, including archeologists, paleontologists, art historians, even a perfume specialist, who speculates about the wood and resin scents that might have permeated the caves years ago.
Inspired by Judith Thurman's "First Impressions" article in "The New Yorker," Herzog secured access to Grotte Chauvet by becoming a temporary employee of the French government, collecting a symbolic payment of one euro. He then promised the French Ministry of Culture copies of the raw footage to use for non-commercial purposes. When filming began, he and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger were limited to working underground, amid the stalactites and stalagmites, no more than four hours a day over a six-day period.
Although best known for feature films, Werner Herzog has made other documentaries which he insists "are actually feature films in disguise," like "Fitzcarraldo" and "Encounters at the End of the World."
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is an absorbing 8. Yet, sadly, even with many precautionary measures, mold has begun to alter the cave drawings during the past decade.