Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a stellar documentary on the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc in southern France, is astonishing and mysteriously familiar. Though the cave, which was discovered in 1994, has sat untouched for over 32,000 years, we are provided a glimpse into a world that seems oddly immediate.
We find ourselves thinking, but I know this place!
The human stroke of charcoal on undulating walls to depict animals fighting, galloping, roaring, mating and at rest is so fresh, it feels as if we know the artist.
Actually, as one anthropologist points out, we are the artist.
The cave has been preserved almost completely as found, with the exception of a sterile metal walkway that provides visitors with a path--beyond the path, the floor of the cave is littered with the bones of all sorts of animals from the ice age: wolves, buffalo, cave bears, cave lions, wooly mammoths, reindeer, rinnoceros! and horses--animals that are so beautifully and freely rendered, it is clear the artist was as familiar with his subject as he was the back of his own hand.
And here are his hand prints, a distinct crooked pinky evident in each imprint. It seems a frail and supremely human characteristic, and we feel we know the artist a little better.
All of this in 3-D is just staggering to experience, and it's not long before the viewer feels as if she is crawling along with the film maker between crystal studded stalactites and stalagmites and the footprints of animals that have long become extinct.
In one portion of the cave, in the deepest recesses, there is a partial image of a woman, the V of her joined legs that splay at the knee, and entwined with an invisible body is a bison...or is she the bison, her head as large and wild as the Minator's ?
Beneath this image, on the the floor of the cave there are foot prints preserved in the crystaline dirt--a small child's foot prints, and beside them, a wolf's paws.
Did the child walk alone? Was it stalked by the wolf? Or were the prints created 500 years apart, simply to be left to create such wonderful questions and stories in our minds 30,000 years later?
As an artist, I try to imagine what it might have like to travel ever deeper underground to find just the right wall for my depictions of the wilderness around me.
I had fire and carried torches, and scraped and rubbed my charcoal sticks low on the walls to sharpen them. To indicate running, I drew animals with 8 legs, one after the other, and the animals danced before me. To indicate sound, I opened mouths of whinnying horses and roaring lions wide, and I could feel their breath upon my chest and hear their language.
The clashing of horn upon horn, the gallop of hooves, the sound of the air as horses race by....
And what about the bones and skulls, some of which are now encased in calcined clay and glitter with crystals?
What about the cave bear skull that appears to have been arranged upon an altar?
Why are there no human bones here?
The musical score, composed by Ernst Reijseger, is truly otherworldly, and most the time it works to create a sense of intimate discovery and that edgy feeling that one is still being watched by humans for whom this cave was probably a sacred space.
Even as a viewer of the movie, there is the distinct impression that we shouldn't really linger here for long, that it is enough to experience the cave fleetingly, perhaps long enough to document it (which has been with scientific precision!), and then simply leave it.
Is it enough to know that our distant ancestors created achingly beautiful horses with manes that bristle with life and necks so strong we feel compelled to encircle them with our arms and hang on for the ride?
Is it enough to imagine the flanks of the lioness brushing against her mate's, as they saunter across the wall?
Or the bison horns, flashing in the sun?
Our human habit is to find a way to capitalize on such uniqueness, and Herzog implies that the French government has plans to build a re-creation of the cave nearby as a destination of tourists. Meanwhile, 10 miles away, a nuclear power plant supplies power for Paris and the residual steam makes a tropical forest where crocodiles mutate and multiply...leave it to Herzog to discover the oddities, the underbelly, of the surrounding environment.
We are reminded that each mystery prompts yet another, that the fragrant rose must be fertilized with manure.