Werner Herzog uses 3D to beautiful effect in this offbeat documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings, discovered by accident in France in 1994. Ancient animal pictures on the wall appear to move and the surrounding landscape is given a dreamy sense of depth.
How old are these paintings? One of the very minor irritations of this film is that the experts flip between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago. You need to accept that absolute precision isn’t possible. Whenever they date from, they are very old and show that our impulse to make art started in the Ice Age, when Neanderthal man roamed Europe alongside our cave artists.
Herzog’s small team is offered about 30 hours during one week to film. The French and regional governments are conscious of the fragility of the images and place a variety of conditions on the group, to protect the preserved paintings.
The caves have been sealed by rocks for about 25,000 years so the art is preserved in pristine condition. It would have been good to have a map of the location, rather than having to seek one out afterwards.
A wonderful treat for art lovers is the way in which technologically-limited camera and lighting serves to copy the torches that were probably used by the people who made the drawings. You really get a sense of history and the film is very successful in creating the feeling that you are there, alongside the artist.
Herzog muses on the animation of the pictures and suggests they are an early form of “proto-cinema”. The music is portentous and varies between enhancing the whole and being slightly intrusive.
The experts here are truly entertaining and add to your knowledge. There is an archeologist who used to be a circus juggler. A perfumer uses his nose to sniff out where caves are. A moustache to rival Tom Selleck’s grabs your eye. Another commentator wears reindeer skins and plays a reconstructed flute. There are many delightfully European eccentrics who know their academic stuff and say it with delight.
Delight is infectious and that’s one of the great joys here. After seeing a run of American and British documentaries, it’s a real pleasure to see such a distinctively French and German movie, even though it’s a Picturehouse documentary. I wish the experts had been allowed subtitles rather than voiceovers.
Should you see it? If you love art history and are as fascinated as I am by our impulse to create, you really should seek it out. If you enjoyed “Grizzly Man” and “Encounters at the End of the World”, this follows them naturally. Herzog’s narration and curiosity carry this work and his “really wild” choices of themes and experts make it feel distinctive and different.
The drawings really are spectacular and moving. You don’t need much imagination to see that the claustrophobic atmosphere of the caves and the love Herzog has for his subject add to the sense of occasion. At times, you may feel that the artists of long ago are almost there, watching and enjoying the process of filming.
My fascination with caves, climbing and art made this a must see event. The question and answer session with Werner Herzog at the Ritzy Picturehouse was beamed by satellite to about 40 other cinemas, including the Stratford Picturehouse, where I watched it.
I have one niggle. I respect film critic Jason Solomons, who chaired the Q & A session. I wish he hadn’t hogged quite so much of Herzog’s time with his questions, most of which were standard interview fare and, frankly, just not as interesting as the audience’s questions. Even once Solomons had ceded to the audience and Twitter questions, he felt compelled to take more time, asking yet another question.
That aside, this was an intriguing premiere and drew in new people to the cinema. Stratford Picturehouse does these events really well and I did feel I was part of something very special.
Herzog’s distinctive sense of humour, refreshing perspective and feeling for the absurd enhances the whole and gives the viewer great insight into what it is to communicate, create, evolve and be human. If the subject matter interests you, see it in 3D.