By wile and charm — and through contacts with the French Ministry of Culture — Werner Herzog, the prolific documentarian and fiction director (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans) talked his way into the Chauvet caves of southern France a year ago, cameras and crew in tow.
Sealed for eons by a rock slide and discovered only in 1994, the caves, near the Ardeche River, turn out to be humankind's first art gallery: Paintings of horses and mammoths, lions and reindeer, adorn the glistening contours of rock, put there about 32,000 years ago by a budding Picasso or two. Amazing.
In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog follows a team of archaeologists into the caverns, panning his special 3-D camera around stalagmites and stalactites, stopping to assess the beautifully primitive drawings that link the long-gone past to the present. Although Herzog waxes dramatic about the restrictions applied in the making of Cave of Forgotten Dreams (in fact, he's completely misleading), his access to this remarkable hole in the Earth is nonetheless extraordinary. We're never going to be allowed in this place, so thanks, Werner, for inviting us along.
In typical Herzogian fashion, the director (and narrator), who has meditated on humankind's relationship with nature and one another in the impossibly fascinating films Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, uses the discovery of these images to ruminate on matters large and small, meaningful and oblique. The essence of art, of course, is discussed. Fossils and skeletons prompt musings on mortality, but also on a kind of immortality. He meets with scientists and researchers, trying to find out more about the pictures and the ancient folk who put them there.
And how can you not reflect about time, and change, and physical and spiritual being, when confronted with such a stunning visual record of human existence?
Remember that strange, trippy gator in Herzog's Bad Lieutenant? In an utterly bizarre twist, Herzog finds a congregation of alligators in close proximity to the Chauvet caves, bathing in the unnaturally warm waters of an artificial ecosystem beside a nuclear power plant. Somehow, he manages to draw parallels between this sci-fi-like scene and the paintings of horses, galloping silently through the millennia, on the long-hidden rocks nearby.