The Chauvet cave was named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, the explorer who made the monumental discovery in 1994. Herzog's interest in the cave was prompted by Judith Thurman's New Yorker article "First Impressions"; an inspiration that prompted him to get together a minimal crew and seek special permission from the French Minister of Culture to film his documentary. The cave is now carefully preserved, and because of the near-toxic levels of radon and carbon dioxide in parts of the cave, Herzog and his team were only able to film in the caves for a few hours a day, and under heavy restrictions.
What they discover is nothing short of amazing - hundreds of pictures of animals (not just rhinoceroses, horses and lions, but animals now extinct) drawn with sophistication, detail and accuracy by early man from 32, 000 years ago. What's so incredible about this discovery is the fact that these paintings (which look startlingly recent) are almost twice as old as any previous discovery of pictorial creations by humankind.
Also within the elaborate and extensive cave structure are several other magnificent wonders; a stunning crystallised (and glittery) cathedral of stalagmites and stalactites, a huge variety of animal bones, and a bear skull perched on an altar indicating a ceremony or ritual. Herzog, due to the limited footage he was able to collect from the caves interior, extends his boundaries to the aerial captures of the nearby Pont d'Arc natural bridge, and an investigation into early miniature rock sculptures, primitive weapons and instruments. Herzog's sense of humour and those of his privileged sources shine through, making this experience an absolute delight.
The time span separating these creations is near-unfathomable. Some of the inscriptions are separated by thousands of years; bear scratches painted over by primitive Neanderthals for example. They are really quite breathtakingly beautiful (and accurate) representations of animals. Part of Herzog's analysis of this extraordinary find is to delve into the relationship between early Neanderthals and animals, and through the accounts of the specialists he interviews, we are asked to imagine the surrounding French region (and the rest of Europe) from this period. While the sights within the cave walls encourage a sense of wonder, the film challenges us further, asking us to consider this ancient period, in an attempt to understand what these early humans were thinking at the time, and how they were able to achieve what they did.
With the exception of Pixar animations and perhaps Avatar, I am yet to be really impressed by 3D. I think Herzog's resistance is justified, but I found it to be a very effective addition, especially in extenuating the contours of the cave and really bringing the incredible crystalline deposits to life. Herzog's decision was based on his desire to "capture the intentions of the painters" who incorporated the wall's subtle bulges and contours into their art.
Wondrous, intriguing and informative, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a triumph from one of cinemas most visionary filmmakers. There is so much more to this than a privileged journey into a now inaccessible Wonder of the World, but even if that was all it was, it would be more than enough. Herzog's film works as a philosophical study on how we interpret and internalize our perceptions of art, as a way to understand history, to evaluate humanness and the ability to 'create' something eternal. It's an incredible experience.
My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)