Last night I was luckily enough to attend a screening of legendary director Werner Herzogâ€™s latest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. The preview showing was followed by a live satellite Q&A with Herzog himself, chaired by the Observerâ€™s Jason Solomons.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a documentary that explores the Chauvet Cave located in Southern France. Not only are they entrancingly beautiful, they are also particularly historically and culturally relevant. This is because they contain the oldest â€˜cave artâ€™ known to man, which has been immaculately preserved by a piece of geographical fortune. Sealed for years by a fluke rock-slide, the atmosphere that was created halted the natural degradation of the paintings. The cave was first explored in 1994, when three speleologists ventured through a small gap in the rock face. Since then, the French government has allowed limited access, denying all those without purely scientific interests. It is quite remarkable then, that Herzog has secured permission to venture into Chauvet accompanied by a limited filming crew. It seems he managed to strike some kind of deal with the government that included the right to freely distribute the film in French schools. So, everyoneâ€™s a winner in this situation and I suspect the French had an itch for people to be able to see the caves anyway; apparently there are plans to build an exact replica in a kind of bizarre Disneyland-esque venture.
Herzog was allowed in with four crew, a small camera and some compact lighting equipment. They were required to manoeuvre along a small walkway, merely 60cm wide. At one point they had to resort to suspending a camera off a long stick to get a shot that was restricted from their vision. It is remarkable then that, despite these restrictions, they have successfully filmed the whole thing in 3D. When I first heard about that fact I was bemused. My instant reaction to 3D is one of distaste and disillusionment â€“ Iâ€™ve never seen a film that I felt was improved by being in 3D, and I am a firm believer that it should be looked at as a novelty, and will not be here for the long term. However, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the first ever challenger to that mind-set. Whether I like admitting it or not, the 3D looked good. This is the filmâ€™s definitive achievement, and stands as testament to the filmmaking prowess of Werner Herzog. That isnâ€™t to say the visuals are perfect; it occasionally got a bit blurry, and I still felt like my eyes were being strained towards the movie, however, the 3D definitely added something to the whole experience. The fact that it made us feel like we were inside the cave with Herzog was remarkable, and thoroughly justified his decision to shoot the film thusly.
As a documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams ticks all the boxes. It is informative, nicely paced, and well thought out. The Herzog touch appears in the form of a few of the filmâ€™s characters. There is a perfumier who provides a little light comedy with his broad smile and enthusiastic ramblings, an archaeologist who was once a circus act and a charismatic Frenchman who mused on the very essence of spirituality. All these people seem enthused by Herzogâ€™s presence, and that enthusiasm shines through in the picture, creating a somewhat uplifting environment. During the Q&A Herzog spoke of how these characters find him during filming, rather than the other way round, I thought that was a nice touch.
The Q&A post-screening was a thoroughly disjointed and unsatisfying affair. Hosted by Jason Solomons of the Observer, it was poorly organised and executed. Throughout the day and just prior to the screening we were encouraged to send questions in via Twitter I expect thousands were sent, yet, when it came to question time, Solomons asked a variety of his own questions (many of which had already been answered in the film) and made time from a mere two from the Twitter feed. It made no sense, and I got the feeling everyone was rather frustrated, especially considering Herzog seemed to be enjoying the Q&A and was coming across as a charming and funny man. I think we all would have liked to have heard more from him.
The film conspires to speculate on many deep philosophical questions. It asks us what the meaning of art is, the nature of self and how we interpret the soul. It tries very hard to recreate the sense of spirituality (if that is the appropriate word) that they all felt while filming. At numerous times this works effectively, and at these points in the film the cave paintings seem to carry an extra feel of significance. I wouldnâ€™t like to speculate too much on how the viewing experience will make you feel, but there is certainly the capacity for it to have a profound effect.
The bottom line is this â€“ Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a brilliantly executed documentary that is worth seeing even if you have limited interest in speleology. This is Herzog right near his best, and if that isnâ€™t worth watching, frankly, I donâ€™t know what is. The Q&A was bollocks, but that wonâ€™t affect future screenings of the film. It wonâ€™t appeal to everyone, but there is easily enough interesting content here to make it worth your entry fee. I would also suggest (I never thought Iâ€™d say this) going to see it in 3D. It might give you a bit of a headache, but itâ€™s a headache worth having when you consider how much more immersive the experience is. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a triumph of documentary filmmaking; itâ€™s also far better than Grizzly Man.