For all his life Werner Herzog has been seeking out the unvisited, the unseen and in some cases, the unimagined, to capture them on film with all the wonder and edge-of-the-world danger that have been his unabated inspiration. One of the least accessible and most fascinating places on the planet (also full of dangerous gas!) is the cave system at Chauvet, where only 17 years ago cave paintings were discovered that were twice as old as the previous oldest known. The French government shut it up tight, allowing limited scientific access and, for brief periods last year, Werner Herzog. With a 3D camera no less.

In the enclosed cave, the 3D is great. That uncanny way of seeing fully enhances the intense “experience” of being in such an unusual space. The unweathered folds of rock, the ripples of calcite evoke a lunar or extraterrestrial mood, and chambers seen through chambers efficiently create depth. But its most important function is to demonstrate how the 35,000 year-old art was rendered with full awareness and consideration of the contours and forms of the stone canvas.

Repeated close examination reveals the depictions of a wide variety of animals to have been executed with remarkable sophistication, for all their apparent simplicity. Line, shade and occasionally colour are used with exact and discrete skill, and if they necessarily recall Picasso, that is after all only because he recognized their mastery. Some of the effects are yet more surprising, in the suggestion of sound and movement, with repeated anatomical features working like a flick-book or… the movies (“proto-cinema” in that accent).

Other than wildlife, there are a few abstract paintings, a remarkable wall of red handprints and one mysterious human figure, the lower half of a female, possibly being impregnated by a minotaur, rendered on a fat downward-hanging outcrop (the mystery in part is due to the authorities’ odd decision not to lay the access walkway so as to allow full examination of the reverse – Herzog puts his camera on a stick!) Above ground, we’re shown a similar, modeled figure in the Schwabian museum and one yearns to learn more about the connection and function, but the mists of time remain opaque.

In fact, not only for its pictorial value, Herzog has got his hands on another cracking documentary subject, since most of the questions he could possibly ask are simply answerable “we’ll never know” (which he relishes in his voiceover). He is also blessed with a good handful of learned, engaging and varyingly eccentric interviewees amongst the scientists involved with the site. They all have a marked philosophical bent that makes up for the lack of hard facts, and Herzog is particularly pleased to learn that one serious young man used to be in the circus. There’s also “Experimental Archeologist” Wulf who demonstrates the remarkable discovery that these people used a true pentatonic scale for their simple flutes, whilst garbed in (?)correct period dress; the sense that Herzog has sought out some strange woodland peasants is confirmed when we meet the guy who’s basically ex-head of Perfume in France, who hunts for caves by smell.

Herzog covers a lot of ground, but there remains a sense that this is not as inquiring a documentary as it might be. He makes the most of his time in the cave, but a slightly joshing air in the rest of the – presumably non-time-pressed – sequences goes hand in hand with typically Herzogovian nonsense like “these images are memories of long-forgotten dreams” in the “enchanted world of the imaginary”. Shadows on the cave wall lead him irrelevantly to Fred Astaire rather than to Plato, and the albino alligator epilogue is merely spurious. His usually sure sense of music unfoots him here too: medieval choirs are always good but heartbeats are rarely, and Ernst Reijseger’s score resorts too frequently to self-consciousness mournfulness and try-hard trance.

Suggested traces of spirituality in the cave’s contents indicate a sentience acceptable enough for us to acknowledge the inhabitants as ancestors. Herzog’s most promising supposition is that it “as if the modern soul awakened here” (this is indeed the point at which Neanderthals had been almost entirely replaced by H.sapiens) and Herzog worries at our profound disconnection with something so fundamentally connected. Needless to say, we’ve next to no idea who these artists were, although tantalizing evidence is found in the wall of handprints, via which other work by the same individual can be identified throughout the caves. The question posed is basically: what is humanness? (“we shall never know”!) and if this avenue diverts to a Romantic musing on man’s relation to the splendor and perpetuity of landscape, at least the Ardèche River valley is simply gorgeous. For all one might wish for a little more serious inquiry, it is a remarkable and invaluable record that provides plenty of food for thought.

Rating 8.42/10

Cave of Forgotten Dreams opens in select US cities Friday, April 29 – watch the trailer…

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