TIFF Movie Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

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Photo: IFC Films

The world through Werner Herzog’s eyes may look the same as what you and I see, but his interpretation of what he sees and the questions he asks are unlike anything I’ve ever considered. In his new 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams things are no different as he explores the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave of southern France which holds cave art dating back 32,000 years. Herzog, in his one-of-a-kind narrative style, brings the art to life through ruminations and speculation as to why each painting appears as it does and what the 32,000-year-old artists may have been considering in ways only he could imagine.

Using 3D to enhance the experience, Herzog’s new film works as much as it doesn’t in that regard. When in the cave, the 3D works as the smooth, undulating art covered walls, protected by years of calcite build-up, are quite breath-taking. However, on his way to the cave, Herzog documents the journey using handheld cameras that don’t work so well with 3D as small bushes and branches play with your eyes in three dimensions confusing your vision to the point you’re almost cross-eyed.

I would say the 3D for this film is unnecessary, but considering the Chauvet caves have been restricted to so few people, capturing them in 3D seems only appropriate. Who knows if a situation such as this will ever be available again? Herzog himself was restricted to battery powered lights that didn’t emit any heat and he and his crew weren’t allowed off a narrow path that led them 1,300 feet deep into the cave. Of course, the 3D is hardly the spectacle here as much as the paintings and their age are the baffling highlight.

To think these paintings are 32,000 years old is mind-boggling enough. By comparison, they’re almost two times as old as the cave art of Lascaux. Some of the paintings inside the cave were made as many as 5,000 years apart and charcoal from burning torches dates back 28,000 years. This is a difference in time the human mind can’t even comprehend considering the puny amount of time we spend on this rock by comparison.

Accompanied by a saintly score, Herzog treats the cave as a cathedral. Speaking with a wide-range of spiritual and historical “experts,” his sources are as educational as they are eccentric. He concludes the film with a postscript featuring albino crocodiles warmed by radioactive water only miles from the cave’s location and he wonders what they would think if they were to see the cave paintings. The thought evokes laughter from the audience, but this is why we watch and an easy comparison can be made to the iguanas in Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant. Just what the hell are they doing there?

Herzog has a reason for what he’s doing. I’m not going to look too deep into it here other than my impression of his statement on the way mankind influences and affects nature around him, but these are the eccentricities that keep us watching.

Of course, journalistic research has since pointed out what Herzog refers to as radioactive albino crocodiles are in fact normal albino alligators shipped to France from Louisiana, but in this case Herzog’s interpretation is the more interesting one so I won’t argue. Like his experts, Herzog’s eccentricities are as illuminating and entertaining as they are instructive.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams isn’t an altogether masterpiece (it certainly gets a bit tiresome and a bit too ponderuous), but it’s entertaining enough to be considered a worthwhile watch. I anticipate audiences will be simultaneously in awe of the cave paintings as much as they sit back and ponder, laugh and rejoice in Herzog’s interpretations.

GRADE: B