Right there in the title is a tip-off as to what went awry with Werner Herzog’s most recent documentary project: It is accurate to call this a film about a cave. It is needlessly cosmic and pseudo-poetic to suggest either the film or the cave has anything to do with forgotten dreams. We all know the director is out there — and we like him that way — but Herzog gets a little too trippy for his own good this time around.
The Chauvet Cave is mind blowing enough on its own. It hardly requires philosophical and metaphysical window dressing to command the viewer’s attention. Discovered in 1994 by French archaeologists working in the southern part of the country near the Ardèche River, it contains the oldest cave paintings known to exist. Created 32,000 years ago, they are twice as old as those at Lascaux, and, because a rock slide sealed the cave’s entrance a few thousand years after they were made, they are in astoundingly pristine condition.
The French government strictly controls access to the place, normally keeping it off limits to all but a select group of scientists. By some bureaucratic sleight of hand, however, Herzog secured permission to take a crew of four into the cave for a limited number of hours with a limited amount of equipment. The result is a film document of immeasurable cultural significance. It records for posterity the oldest known examples of human art, and it is the only way you and I are ever going to be able to see them.
Those artworks are astonishingly beautiful and assured renderings of prehistoric animals, including mammoths, cave bears, panthers, rhinos, bison, lions and horses. As the crew’s guide points out, the paintings retain their original vividness because the air supply in the cave has remained undisturbed all these millennia. As remarkable as their condition, though, is the sophistication of technique with which they were created.
For example, the artists used the contours of the cave walls to give depth to bodies. Some creatures have eight legs, presumably to suggest movement. The artworks reveal a level of detail and a grasp of texture, color and shading that confound expectation. But, just when one might think Herzog would consult scholars to ponder such mysteries as the sort of tools these painters used, how they achieved certain effects or what communal purpose these pictures served, he inquires instead, “Do they have souls? Do they cry at night?” Exsqueeze me?
Tangent follows tangent. Herzog has rambling, oblique conversations about Australian aboriginal art with a former circus performer. He films a fur-clad scientist playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a Paleolithic flute. In a crescendo of loopiness, he closes the movie by showing footage of a nuclear power plant located roughly 20 miles from the Chauvet Cave and then segues to a nearby tropical biosphere that houses, among other creatures, small albino crocodiles. Over images of the red-eyed creatures floating, the filmmaker wonders aloud whether one day the albino crocodiles will swim to Chauvet, and he asks, “Looking at the paintings, what will they make of them?”
I’m not sure reptile art appreciation is where the globe-trotting auteur intended to wind up when he started on his latest journey. Before Herzog got off track and things took a turn for the zany, he did the world a big favor by documenting these ancient wonders. Now maybe he should do one for himself. Herzog sounds like he could use a nice, long rest.