Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, takes viewers to an exhibit of priceless art at the world’s most exclusive gallery. How exclusive? Back in June 2008, Judith Thurman wrote a piece about it in The New Yorker, but was never granted permission to see the artwork for herself. That’s because the gallery is the Chauvet cave of southern France, a setting nature preserved so perfectly that cave paintings from nearly 30,000 years ago have suffered little to no deterioration. Needless to say, the mere discovery of the cave dramatically increased the threat of damage to the paintings, so government restrictions have limited access to a handful of scientists, archaeologists, and other researchers. But Herzog being Herzog, he gained a rare permit to bring his cameras into the Chauvet cave—four hours per day for one week—to document these extraordinary drawings from the Paleolithic era, including dramatic scenes of horses and clashing bison, and even a rendering of a woman’s lower half. And he does it all in 3-D.
Again working with his History Channel partners, Herzog is in Encounters At The End Of The World mode, acting as a tour guide through an otherworldly place while baffling scientists with abstract philosophical questions. In the process, he ponders the roots of artistic representation, proto-cinematic storytelling, and the possible birth of “humanness.” Cave Of Forgotten Dreams has much to recommend it: Herzog’s half off-the-wall/half-profound queries, a delightfully unexpected coda on albino alligators, a single scene on ancient weapons that alone justifies the 3-D process, and the opportunity to see what so few have seen. Yet it lacks the freewheeling inquiry of Herzog’s best documentaries, and his compulsion to scan every inch of the cave walls (and twice more for good measure) gets tedious at times, plagued by a ruinous dirge of a score. In spite of some thoughtful—and occasionally just bizarre—rumination on what the marvels of Chaumet really signify, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams often feels as stifling as the place it explores, rather than the sensual odyssey its evocative title suggests.