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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

By Philip Martin

This article was published July 1, 2011 at 4:26 a.m.

— Cave of Forgotten Dreams is an immersive, astonishing film about the oldest artworks known to man - paintings that were discovered inside a French cave in 1994. It’s also an intriguing meditation on what one of the scientists interviewed identifies as “homo spiritus” - man awakened to the timeless, transcendental power of art. It’s suggested that the cave might be the birthplace of the human soul.

The oldest paintings inside the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc could have been made as long as 32,000 years ago - which, we are told, would make them about twice as old as any previously discovered paintings. And archaeologists estimate that some of the paintings were made about 5,000 years later than the earliest paintings. For thousands of years prehistoric humans used the cave for, we assume, some sort of religious or quasi-religious purpose. But then about 20,000 years ago a landslide closed off its entrance, sealing it tight.

In December 1994, three French spelunkers followed a subtle air current, and dug their way into one of the cave’s chambers, where they found first a painting of a mammoth, then dozens of magnificent, artfully realized paintings of animals such as lions, bears, rhinos and horses. (Not counting hand prints, there is only one depiction of the human form in the cave - one that inspires director-narrator Werner Herzog to strange but hardly dismissible theorizing.)

While you might, on the morning after, wonder exactly how Herzog managed to secure his access to this wondrous place, while watching the film you’ll just be glad he got in somehow. His trademark dry narration - interrupted now and again by flights of ecstasy - fits with the mysterious, sacred images we see. By and large, Herzog’s comments are insightful, as when he identifies an animal painted with eight legs to signify movement as a kind of “proto-cinema.”

Though you could argue about composer Ernst Reijseger’s faux classical New Age score music (I liked the silence better, except when it cornily resolved into a human heartbeat) or a segment in which he interviews an eccentric perfumer (who has been hired to re-create the odor of the cave for a full-size replica the French intend to open for tourists), the truth is there’s plenty of room for discursive noodling in this compact film.

I wouldn’t have wanted Herzog to cut the charming archaeologist who plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a replica of a Neolithic flute (and proves, amazingly, that the pentatonic scale shared the Earth with Neanderthals) or even the creepy coda in which he brings up the albino alligators who now live in the shadow of a nuclear facility within 20 miles of the cave. (Herzog’s point isn’t far removed from that of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” - at the time of the cave painters, glaciers thousands of feet thick covered the Alps; a man could walk across the dry bed of the English Channel. This, too, shall pass.)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams - offered in 3-D in some markets but, alas, not here - might have been a worthy film at 60 minutes long, but then it wouldn’t have been a Herzog film. The difference is the difference between a film about art, and a film that is art.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 89


Documentary, with Werner Herzog, Charles Fathy, Dominique Baffier


Werner Herzog


Not rated

Running time:

90 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 07/01/2011

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