On December 18, 1994, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaier discovered a cave in southeastern France, now known as Chauvet Cave. Within it were numerous paleolithic cave painting. Carbon dating suggests that these paintings are thirty-two thousand years old, making them the oldest paintings in existence. The fragility of these paintings prompted the French authorities to immediately seal the cave entrance and prohibit entry by anyone except for a small group of scientists, archaeologist, and art historians. Acclaimed director Werner Herzog, however, received a special exemption from this prohibition in order to make his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
The film is a ponderous examination of the paintings and their significance. Prominent in the film is the awe that the paintings inspire in the film makers and the scientists alike. Herzog treats us to extended shots of the rapt faces of his party and their minders as they move through the cave. Eventually, it seems a clumsy trick to impress upon the film viewer the profundity of the art. It is, however, consistent with the attitudes expressed by the scientists who are interviewed for the film.
Two other film techniques succeed only partially. The hand held camera and minimal spot lighting that moves across the walls of the cave provides a rough imitation of how the art may have been seen when it as lit by paleolithic torches; however, it would seem some other technology might have been used to more accurately depict this impression. The images are also accompanied by an original score by Ernst Reijseger. As with the rapt faces of Herzog's crew, the music attempts to elevate the film's subject to a lofty spiritual plane, but it is too often overbearing and distracting. A more apt musical sound track might have made use of the simple flutes and percussion instruments that might have been in use by the painters' culture. Alternatively, the quiet of the cave itself may have been more effective than Reijseger's score.
Unsurprisingly, the most impressive aspects of the film are the paintings themselves. These are shown to greatest effect toward the end of the film. Viewing these paintings in a darkened theatre is far more effective than seeing tiny photographs in a handful of art books which up to now has been the best way for the public to see them.
Herzog's fascination with the spiritual significance of art and how it connects us to humans living tens of thousands of years ago is endearing and certainly thought provoking; however, more could have been achieved if he had provided us with a fuller explanation of what the painters' culture was probably like and more explanation of how the images came about. Perhaps the most fascinating interlude in this regard was when we are told that the work of a single artist can be found in various parts of the cave. We know this because some of the markings were made by a hand smeared with ochre. The pinky finger of this hand was distinctively crooked.
The film is being shown in both a 2D and a 3D version. Having only seen the 2D version, I cannot comment on the effectiveness of the 3D version, though it is purported that the 3D camera is better able to convey the contours of the cave walls which are integral to the art itself.
In all, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a lovely chance to experience a most amazing archaeological discovery that would otherwise be unavailable. Herzog should be congratulated to taking on the project. It is well worth seeing, despite its shortcomings.