In 1994, explorers in the South of France came upon a cave that had been sealed by a rock slide thousands of years ago. Inside, they found the oldest cave paintings ever discovered, perfectly preserved by that serendipitous accident. Director Werner Herzog recently petitioned the French Government to allow him access to the caves to film the artwork, which they granted him, subject to significant restrictions. This documentary shows the results of his visits.

*****

The story of the discovery of the Chauvet caves in France is fascinating in its own right. Archeologists searched along the rock faces for drafts, any indication of a buried network of caves. They found a way in and in the process discovered 32,000 year-old cave paintings of breath-taking clarity and precision. Once it became clear how significant a find it was, the cave was sealed, metal walkways were installed in the caves, access was a severely restricted and carefully planned research and surveys were conducted.

Archeologists, artists, paleontologists, anthropologists and now film-makers have all been granted access to wonder over drawings of horses, cave lions, rhinos, mammoths, bears, bison and so forth and they are doubtless a fascinating find. The restrictions imposed on Werner Herzog work very much in his favour, the limited lighting enabling the paintings to be eerily lit in a manner not dissimilar to how we imagine firelight might have. Lines, features and strokes combine to evoke movement, power and story and it is not hard to be drawn into Herzog’s breathless wonder and enthusiasm. We hear from a variety of other experts, who have all considered the paintings and other archeological finds and offer their various thoughts on what we can learn about Paleolithic life, including hunting, clothing and even sexuality.

As fascinating as it is and as incredibly vivid as the Blu-ray transfer is, there remains a sense that this might not be especially suited to the feature-length format. The input from assorted experts is insightful and invaluable and the footage of the cave interior impressive, however the slow movement across the same artwork over and over again, with no fresh insight proffered becomes a little repetitive as the admittedly brief 90-minute running time progresses. What might have worked better is a more diligently edited 1 hour television documentary, however that is a minor gripe about a fascinating and important piece of work by Herzog.

He loses his self-discipline a little towards the end as he moves into considering the albino crocodiles living near the nuclear power plant 20 miles from the caves. It is entirely unclear what he is trying to say and this feels like an unnecessary and self-indulgent coda to an otherwise commendable film.

Probably not one to watch over and over again, but definitely worth catching if you haven’t already.

[Rating:3/5]

Extras: Minimal. A lengthy audience Q & A hosted by critic Jason Solomons following the film’s premiere, which considers the process of making the documentary in some detail, a theatrical trailer and the choice of 3D or 2D versions.

[Rating:2/5]

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Dave Roper
Dave has been writing for HeyUGuys since mid-2010 and has found them to be the most intelligent, friendly, erudite and insightful bunch of film fans you could hope to work with. He's gone from ham-fisted attempts at writing the news to interviewing Lawrence Bender, Renny Harlin and Julian Glover, to writing articles about things he loves that people have actually read. He has fairly broad tastes as far as films are concerned, though given the choice he's likely to go for Con Air over Battleship Potemkin most days. He's pretty sure that 2001: A Space Odyssey is the most overrated mess in cinematic history.