In 1994, three explorers stumbled on a cave in southern France that, having been shielded from the elements for thousands of years, harbored an amazing treasure: prehistoric paintings of horses, panthers, lions, and at least one human, all of them etched on calcium-lined rock and dating back some 32,000 years. Two years ago, the French government granted limited access to the Chauvet Cave for filmmaker Werner Herzog so that the world might share in this archaeological wonderland. In 3-D, no less.
Sounds like the makings of a spellbinding documentary, doesn’t it? Alas, too often during Cave of Forgotten Dreams I felt like I was back in 7th-grade science class, grateful when the lights went off so that I could catch a few winks during the screening of some plodding educational movie.
The images in Cave are impressive. I did not see the film in 3-D, but I was still drawn to Herzog’s lingering, panoramic views of what most inspired our ancestors: animals. Not only are the paintings well-preserved, many of them are artistically striking.
Unfortunately, Herzog’s film is 90 minutes, and that’s a long time to fill the screen with slow pans of stalactites, stalagmites, and hand prints on shadowy walls. Also, Herzog is determined to speculate on What It All Means, and that means introducing the “experts.”
Among the scholars who provide archaeological insight, we meet one geezer, “Master Perfumer” Maurice Maurin, who — I kid you not — sniffs at holes in the ground to ferret out caves. “Primal techniques,” Herzog explains in narration.
We also watch as a cave researcher wobbles a spear through the air in a clumsy attempt to demonstrate how primitive man hunted game during the Ice Age. “His efforts may not look very convincing,” says Herzog, stating the obvious.
In a strange postscript, Herzog photographs some mutant albino crocodiles and wonders aloud what the crocs might make of the nearby cave paintings. Is it possible, he asks, that future historians might look back at humans who explored the Chauvet Cave in much the same way that we now look at these crocodiles?
As long as Herzog was dragging me into la-la land, I began to speculate about one particular drawing on the cave’s wall, which is shown near the end of the movie. I could swear that the image is of Bart Simpson. Grade: B-
Director: Werner Herzog Featuring: Werner Herzog, Jean Clottes, Julien Monney, Jean-Michel Geneste, Michel Philippe, Gilles Tosello, Carole Fritz, Maurice Maurin Release: 2010
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Above, can you spot Bart Simpson?
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