One of the few justifiable recent excursions into 3-D, Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams documents a secret wonder of the world, the Chauvet cave—a subterranean gallery of 300 animal images discovered in 1994 in the South of France.
Twice as old as the paintings at Lascaux, yet amazingly fresh and frankly mind-blowing in their depiction of lions, mammoths, and rhinos, the Chauvet images were made 30,000 years ago, at the dawn of human time. Herzog wangled entrance to this ultra-exclusive treasure, off-limits to all but a handful of scientists, for which we may be grateful; his movie, however, is anything but humble. On one hand, the artist identifies with his Cro-Magnon peers, suggesting their paintings, some depicting animals with eight legs, are “proto-cinema”; on the other, he looks for contemporary kindred spirits, populating the movie with as many eccentrics as he can excavate—a local parfumeur with plans for an aromarama Chauvet theme park, a guy who toots “The Star-Spangled Banner” on a Paleolithic flute. Herzog also discovers a dreadful future to match the unknowable past: a nearby nuclear facility that has generated a tropical biosphere populated by mutant albino crocodiles.
Herzog’s 3-D is often masterful in representing the way in which the paintings’ shaped surfaces enhance perspective, or in revealing how deep space might be defined by light. (For better or worse, the movie does for Chauvet what Baudrillard complained an on-site replica did for Lascaux—render the real thing false.) Would that the director maintained the cave’s silence, deep enough to hear your heartbeat. Instead, there’s a compulsion to fill the void with philosophical vapors (“Is this the origin of the soul?”) and Ernst Reijseger’s obtrusive New Age choral music. The escalating audio desecration is capped by the filmmaker’s ultimate head-scratcher. Perhaps the mutant crocs will swim to Chauvet: “Looking at the paintings—what will they make of them?”