Discovered in 1994, the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc is a remarkable archaeological find with markings that could go back 32,000 years. These paintings are surprisingly intricate and provide clues about a society that generally remains a mystery to scientists. Located in southern France, this stunning cave is the perfect setting for a documentary.
The difficult part is gaining access, so it takes a filmmaker with the clout of Werner Herzog to get the chance to produce a film. Cave of Forgotten Dreams gives an intimate perspective on the hundreds of animal paintings that provide extremely rare examples of a long-gone era.
The Chauvet Cave is a compelling location with plenty of secrets, but stretching them into a 90-minute film is a tricky proposition. Herzog (Encounters at the End of the World) has a great intellectual curiosity, so he rarely sticks to the conventional narrative. He gets sidetracked by the characters surrounding the cave, including a former lion tamer. His interest in a variety of topics sends the story in surprising directions, but it also leads to some extremely dry patches. Neither a talking-head documentary nor a straight-up history lesson, it employs Herzog’s unique style to tell an uneven, but intriguing tale.
This film begins with Herzog’s first entry into the cave, a narrow but amazingly preserved location blocked by a rockslide for thousands of years. The camera crew shoots from narrow metal walkways that only stretch a few feet wide. The paintings face danger from even minor disturbances, so this production’s time and abilities are extremely limited. Using small cameras, Herzog and his crew must capture footage quickly and hope for the best.
The resulting footage is even more remarkable when you consider the limitations placed on the production. The restrictions help them to avoid the overly manufactured feeling of some IMAX films you might see at a local Science Museum.
Filmed and presented theatrically in 3-D, Cave of Forgotten Dreams stands apart from the typical fare you’d expect to see in that format. I wasn’t able to see it in the theater, but I expect the shots inside the cave were magical on the big screen. The best moments move slowly around the paintings while the amazing vocal sounds play in the background. Appearing near the end of the film, these moments offer a welcome respite from a few too many conversations with experts. The speakers are visibly excited, but Herzog’s laid-back style can induce a few yawns from all but the most dedicated viewers.
The extras are limited to a trailer and one documentary, but the latters is an excellent inclusion. Directed by Herzog, the 40-minute “Ode to the Dawn of Man” presents the film’s music recordings at the Protestant Chuch of Haarlem in The Netherlands. The composer Ernst Reijseger collaborated with Herzog on other films including The White Diamond, and it’s clear they enjoy working together. This feature provides more time with the beautiful vocals that play a major role in Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ success. It could use some trimming, but this extra offers an informative look at the creative process.
Herzog has a unique voice and manner of speaking that brings weight to statements that would sound ridiculous from most people. He finds a way to speculate on spiritual matters and remain genuine while making theoretical leaps. However, he tends to inch pretty close to the line of sounding too pretentious. It’s refreshing to see him personally involved in the material, but his approach isn’t for everyone. Even when his comments generate some eye rolls, he’s so passionate that it’s hard to criticize him too much. Herzog is a true independent who immerse himself in the subject, so even his missteps come from the right place.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams closes with an odd “Post Script”, where Herzog connects the discoveries of the caves with mutant albino crocodiles residing at a tropical biosphere near a nuclear power plant. It’s a big stretch and could only come from the mind of Herzog. This is the same guy who took a strange detour to shoot from the perspective of an iguana in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. His offbeat approach helps this film to sidestep the slow points and remain a memorable production.