Discovered in 1994, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave is situated in southern France. The scientists who discovered the cave stepped into a world that had been untouched for well over 20,000 years. The cave had been occupied by humans of two separate eras, with both groups leaving behind fossilized remains of animals and, most significantly, artwork. Images of bison, lions, and horses litter the walls of Chauvet cave - some suggest illustrations of animals in motion, or as Mr. Herzog puts it, examples of proto-cinema.
Werner Herzog, an eccentric director if there ever was one, offers his take on the significance of the images. His wry narrations are welcome as the audience is transported throughout the interior and exterior of the cave. His own sense of wonder is prevalent throughout the film, as he studies every image with the utmost curiosity. The existential musings that Mr. Herzog notes throughout the film gives the whole scenery added depth. Perhaps it’s his ability to shift from utter solemnity to a somewhat comic tone that makes him such an enjoyable narrator.
But examining his narrations serves to undermine the greater lengths in which this director took in creating Cave of Forgotten Dreams. For one, Mr. Herzog, with a crew of three, was permitted to enter Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave under stringent cinematic limitations –the crew was limited to four-hours of filming per day. They were also confined to stepping on thin metal planks that made shooting from afar particularly difficult, with the general expectation that other members of the crew were in shots – this is guerrilla filmmaking.
Most impressive of all is that the film is actually in 3-D. Mr. Herzog, unlike many contemporary Hollywood filmmakers, uses the style not for commercial reasons, but instead to detail the contours of the imagery on the cave. The 3-D on the outside of the cave immerses you into a lush and vibrant world that suggests that Mr. Herzog wants you to feel the physicality of his journey. The 3-D gives added dimension to the paintings themselves, as flickering lights add in seeing the depth and breadth of the artwork.
There’s a moment in the film where Mr. Herzog notes the imprinted footstep of what could have been a young boy or girl. Next to the child’s footsteps are animal tracks, most likely that of a wolf. As Mr. Herzog notes, he questions if the wolf had walked with the child as a friend, or trailed him as a predator. Or perhaps they lived wholly separate, unaware of each other’s existence. The questions that Mr. Herzog asks are metaphorical, but what it produces, what it elicits, is an emotional reaction. Given the humdrum new releases in theaters these days, I welcome any film that provokes mental or emotional thought, let alone 90 minutes worth of it.