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Review: Werner Herzog's 'Cave Of Forgotten Dreams' Is Neither Forgettable Nor Very Dreamy

by The Playlist
April 26, 2011 10:51 AM
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The following is a slightly modified reprint of a review that ran at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.

Occasionally enchanting and evocative, yet rarely affecting or reaching any profound heights of "ecstatic truth," Werner Herzog's 3D documentary about ancient cave art, "Cave Of Forgotten Dreams" is not totally forgettable effort in the cinema stalwart's always-expanding oeuvre, but a mostly mild one that feels awfully familiar.

In 1994 French speleologist Jean-Marie Chauvet (and two others) discovered rare and obscure caves in the south end, Ardèche department of the country. Thanks to errant air shafts that gave aways its hidden presence, preserved inside the caves were ancient prehistoric, 30,000 year old primitive pictorial art, found etched on the side of the crevasses. Herzog and his small film crew were granted unprecedented, but still limited and somewhat compromised, access to the subterranean dwellings that bore evidence of extremely early Upper Paleolithic life. Employing lights that emit no heat, the filmmaker/seeker and his crew, set out to ascertain clues that might give us some kind of insight into the lives of these stone age dwellers. In 3D, naturally.

Herzog has forged an entire career on immense curiosity and constant explorations into new territories and terrains (the Amazon, Antarctica, the desert, etc.), so it's easy to understand the appeal for him here. And while the film intermittently displays small flashes of his trademark brilliance or evokes a sense of true wonder in what Herzog's deep gaze sees, more often than not, the picture feels like a documentary you might press play on at a museum installation to half-listen for deeper info and context before wandering off in search of a new discovery.

As for the 3D, well as beautiful and magnificent as it may seem at first, the novelty (like most 3D) wears off quickly and what we're left with is a technique that feels largely unnecessary and a distraction from Herzog's verisimilitude-seeking assays. As Herzog himself recently noted in a fairly recent interview with The Playlist, the human eye does not care to stare at manufactured stereoscopic 3D for extended periods of time and this theory applies here for this periodically unremarkable film.

One things for sure: handheld cameras and 3D do not mix well (Paul Greengrass take note for the future) and there's certainly a fearful, queasy and vertiginous sensation at first when Herzog's handheld tracks a group of scientists, archaeologists and artists who venture into the catacombs -- you're utterly relieved when they arrive at the entrance and the camera settles.

One of 'Dreams' larger issues, aside from its very Herzog-conventional tone -- the filmmaker trying to elevate the bromidic, with varying degrees of success this time -- is that none of his "experts" are particularly interesting, let alone fascinating. Unlike "Encounters At The End Of The World," where the director is as front and center as his interview subjects, Herzog lets his mostly uninvolving narration do the work, and he himself mostly stays behind the camera.

While no one wants to compare pictures, it is a bit difficult not to see all the familiar tropes that are seemingly losing there edge. Nowhere near as engaging or incandescent as "The White Diamond," "Grizzly Man" or even the aforementioned 'Encounters' (which is entertaining, but a minor work), there's not a lot of meat to latch onto with 'Caves' and the filmmaker is forced to dole out the same piece of art several times and try and spin several different takes on it via different field authorities. Occasionally, in his Germanic way, Herzog drops a chuckle-worthy bon mot of observation, but more often than not, it's an intuition we've heard from the filmmaker far too many times. His preoccupation with dreams and dreamers is prevalent once more and he intones often how we will never know what these artists were feeling and or thinking, but his sound and vision -- or narration and footage -- isn't particularly inspired this time out.

While the impressive stalactites, limestone cliffs, fossilized remains, extinct animal prints, skulls and prints are engaging in their own way, and Herzog naturally treats the cavity as a cathedral of solemnity, never does it inspire much awe, especially over the course of a still-feels-too-long 95 minutes.

A major miststep and leap of logic -- even for this relentless quest-seeking daydreamer -- is a postscript that features a nearby nuclear plant and biosphere that contains crocodiles; some of which have mutated into albinos according to the filmmaker who sometimes bends the truth for his own purposes. Herzog tries to make some sort of weak and tenuous correlation between these white crocs and the cave dwellers, their dreams, their aspirations and their unknown ambitious, but it just seems like a desperate bid to introduce and squeeze in a more interesting element into the picture that has absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand. It's worked in the past, but here, it feels like he's gone to that well one too many times and the jig is up. And as it turns out, it's pretty much a total fabrication. Vanity Fair did some digging and they discovered these creatures are albino alligators whose skin color is perfectly natural. A publicist for Herzog told the magazine rather cryptically, "Werner has oft said about his films, there is the 'ecstatic truth' and the 'accountant’s truth.' Hope this helps."

Featuring a wonderfully elegiac and reflective orchestral score, often utilizing choral dramatics and absorbing choral voices, the music is a nice tone and does much of the heavy, trying-to-illuminate lifting, but it's still strained, and can't give the interesting, but not engrossing content much deeper resonance. "Cave Of Forgotten Dreams" isn't a failure or a waste of time, but we're pretty sure we had more fun last time we were at the Natural History Museum, even without Uncle Herzog regaling us with his ridiculous tales. Plus, we didn't have to wear those stupid glasses. [C+]

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