Saturday 16 December 2017

Movies: Cave of forgotten dreams ****


In the hands of practically anyone else, this documentary about a cave in the Ardeche, which contains a treasure trove of Paleolithic wall paintings, would have been a laudably worthy but deadly dull affair which might have been marketed as a cure for insomnia. But Cave of Forgotten Dreams contains a secret ingredient -- Werner Herzog, a filmmaker who is constitutionally incapable of blandness.

In a marvellously abandoned late flourish, Herzog (who's 68) has given us a string of fascinating documentaries in recent years, interspersed with class dramas like Bad Lieutenant.

Here, the director has somehow talked his way into being given permission to film in the Chauvet Cave, a perfectly preserved relic of the Upper Paleolithic age which was only discovered 17 years ago.

Along the walls of this kilometre-long vault are some of the most accomplished and undamaged prehistoric paintings you'll find anywhere. For obvious reasons, it's closed to the public, but Herzog makes imaginative use of 3D technology to give us a virtual tour of the cave and those breathtaking 30,000-year-old paintings.

These sumptuous subterranean visuals are the film's real strength: its weakness is that, as so little is known about how the people who decorated those walls lived, the field is open to every new-age charlatan and theorist -- and Herzog has a genius for finding them.

At one point, a ninny of a master perfumer wanders through the cave trying to sniff out the secrets of antiquity. Herzog, of course, isn't going to cede the nutty higher ground to anyone, and in a pricelessly bonkers epilogue, he tracks down albino alligators in a nearby hot-house exhibit and tries -- and fails -- to knit them into his prehistoric story. You've got to love the man.

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