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Cave of Forgotten Dreams (U)

Herzog’s enigmatic musings have an emotional effect on Ryan Gilbey.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (U)
dir: Werner Herzog

If there is one thing we know about Werner Herzog, it is that he's not a man to shrink from a challenge. He traversed the Sahara in Fata Morgana, penetrated the depths of the Peruvian rainforest in Aguirre, Wrath of God, and proved in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans that Nicolas Cage still has a few thespian bones in his body: is there nothing that fazes him? In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he ventures into territory that has proved hazardous for many film-makers before him - 3-D. There is an obvious irony in employing this jazzy format in a documentary about prehistoric cave paintings. But while it does heighten contour and texture, 3-D cannot take credit for the film's successes, any more than it can be blamed for its flaws.

Herzog travelled to the Antarctic for his previous documentary, Encounters at the End of the World. The new picture takes him to a location that has accommodated even fewer human visitors, at least in the past 10,000 years. The signs are that, even before then, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave (named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, one of the speleologists who discovered it in the south of France in 1994) was a busy workshop for artists of the Palaeolithic age. They daubed, painted and possibly worshipped there for a good 20,000 years, give or take. But since a rockslide sealed off the entrance in the 8th millennium BC, business has been on the slow side.

It would have stayed like that, had Chauvet and his colleagues not been scouting the area, attentive to those rock-face draughts that are the cold breath of hidden caves. Once the site had been uncovered, the French government refused all filming requests, wary of the damage that could be inflicted by human contact. Then Herzog called. Here is a man who has persuaded hundreds of people to risk their lives and their sanity in the pursuit of his cinematic vision. Was there ever any answer open to the French but "oui"?

The plain wonder of the paintings in close-up, with hand-held lights providing shaky illumination, justifies the entire project. In one composition, depicting a row of four horses' heads, the blue-black lines look soft and spongy, almost fabric-like; the animals appear not consigned to the unimaginably distant past but breathing and whinnying and poised for action. It is this sense of motion that leads Herzog to describe the art as "a form of proto-cinema" and to liken the individual works to frames in an animated film.

But cinema is not merely visual, and it's curious to note how much is gained and lost in Herzog's use of sound. His wonderfully chewy voice, which suggests a kind of innocent but authoritative insanity, has mysterious catacombs of its own; his personality is so vast and enigmatic that his curiosity alone amplifies ours, and Cave of Forgotten Dreams would be poorer without his credulous commentary. The oppressive choral music is another matter. "Please listen to the cave," says one archaeologist. "You may even be able to hear your heart beat." Chance would be a fine thing. Buried beneath compositions worthy of the CDs sold in museum gift shops is a faint, dripping sound - more evocative than anything on the man-made soundtrack.

The music introduces a gloss of hokey spirituality that is at odds with the picture's em­phasis on corporeal evidence: the footprints preserved in the wax-like calcite; the red handprints that cover an entire wall, revealing the smallest imperfections in the bones of the artist's fingers. Herzog's film dramatises the participatory nature of our relationship with art and history. He talks to a young archaeologist who speaks of the impact the cave has had on his dreams. He also drifts off into his own antic musings. Who else but Herzog would bring Fred Astaire or Baywatch into proceedings and make the connection feel entirely organic? Who else would wonder what an albino alligator would make of the paintings?

The director responds unselfconsciously to what is right in front of him, and his response feeds into the emotional effect the film has on us. To the dreams of the Chauvet Cave, Herzog adds his own.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 28 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Why Libya? Why now?