Werner Herzog, 2010.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96% Fresh
Werner Herzog goes underground, so to speak, to film the recently discovered paintings on the wall of the Chauvet Cave in southern France. These are truly incredible artifacts. They’re extensive, crisp as if they were made yesterday, and twice as old (30,000 y.a.) as any other human painting that has ever been found. Archeologically and anthropologically, this is an enormously important find; the film will also encourage you to consider the paintings to be great art in their own right -- "Mankind's Lost Masterpiece," urges the poster. They are certainly very striking, and many of them are quite lovely when seen through Herzog's crew's cameras.
This being said, it seems to me a bit blithe to try to assess, or really even to praise, the artistic merit of images for which we have absolutely no cultural context whatsoever. For all we know, the Chauvet Cave paintings could have been intended as something analogous to accounting records, or to a biology textbook, or to territorial tagging, or to party decor, or to a contract, or, they could be a doodle; the resident scholars, as least in the fragments of their interviews that we see, seem singularly unimaginative about the range of possibilities in what they are studying. The Art Historians, in particular, seem bound and determined that they are looking at Art, which is a cultural non sequitor unless your definition of "Art" is so inclusive as to be nearly meaningless. I think that they must surely be a little more alert to this issue than Herzog makes them out to be.
The film is also curiously silent on the question of whether this uniquely sealed and well-preserved cave contains a type of pictorial artifact that might have been common as dirt back in the day, or if it was a unique place even in its time. The movie wants to believe, and wants you to believe, that the latter must surely be true, but the notion that the place with the most remarkable cave art would also be the one that happened to get sealed off for thirty millennia by a freak landslide is very, very, very unlikely. Folks from the culture that created these images might very conceivably have thought that these particular specimens were laughably crude sketches, or the bizarre hobby of a weirdo loner, and we would be none the wiser.
None of the above, however, will keep me from hereby nominating the Chauvet Cave artist(s) for the play-in rounds of the Infinite Art Tournament.
Herzog created Cave of Forgotten Dreams in partnership with the History Channel people. Herzog's imprimatur and cultural clout is visible in the great photography, a terrific original score, and in interviews with scientists and other people associated with the cave that reveal much about their emotional response to and passion for the cave paintings. The History Channel impress is evident, I'm afraid, in the film's description of a historical phenomenon without any real attempt at thinking about its historical meaning, context, or significance.
There's a blurb on the DVD cover to the effect that you owe it to yourself as a human being to see this film. I actually kind of agree with that; this is the best look you are ever going to get, literally speaking, at an almost unimaginable depth of your human past. But don't let the film fool you into thinking you it has given you any answers about what the Chauvet paintings might mean. On that score, it hasn't even really asked the interesting questions.