Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

In December 1994, a small team of cave explorers came upon a cave near the valley of the Ardèche River in southern France. They were awestruck as they went inside. Since named after the team leader Jean-Marie Chauvet, the Chauvet Cave had provided the natural canvas for prehistoric paintings dating back 32,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic period, twice as old as those previously found in Lascaux. These are the earliest paintings ever discovered.

The Chauvet Cave is located near the natural limestone bridge over the Ardèche River, the Pont d’Arc, which has been noted to be half a million years old:

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The acclaimed documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog was granted special permission endorsed by the French Ministry of Culture to go into the Chauvet Cave to film the rock paintings in situ. The result is this mesmerizing documentary.

Following a restricted 2-foot wide pathway, and limited only to a film crew of four, with no heat-emitting lights and only hand-held camera, Herzog made a spellbinding document of epic historical significance. A team of archeologist, paleontologist, art historian and geologist formed the quiet, unobtrusive entourage into this pristine trove of treasures.

Surrounded by pink calcite columns like icicles with glittering crystals, the rock paintings depict a myriad of animals including cave bears, ibexes, deers, owls, mammoths…

Action-packed panels of bisons, horses, and rhinos locking horns:

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Lions hunting bisons:

A panther and hyenna surprisingly in friendly mood:

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From the film, archeologists and an art historian inform us that a single artist created most of these works. He had a crooked little finger, and his palm prints could be seen from crouching position to a height of 6 ft.  They are now the oldest human handprints:

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There are animal fossils but no human remains in the cave, suggesting that it was not used for human dwelling but maybe just for painting. A prehistoric art studio? The artist had utilized the curvatures and ridges of the rocks to create fascinating renderings of animals charged with life and energy.

This is where I’d wholeheartedly endorse the 3D technology. Director Herzog, after some hesitations, decided to use a 3D camera to capture the vivid renderings. With the 3D advantage, we can see how the artist utilized the contours of the rocks to depict the animals in a most realistic way.

In the film, we also see multi-legged bisons, like those in cartoon strips or frames in animated films, suggesting movements.

Many of the animals are depicted in perspectives:

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and in layered renderings like this showing lions without manes:

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A few of the paintings are dated to some 5,000 years later, about 27,000 to 25,000 ago, indicating another period of artistic activities there. But since that newer date, no human traces were left. The cave had remained untouched until the recent discovery in 1994.

In the vicinity of the cave, remnants of musical instruments are found, evidence of another form of artistic pursuit. In the film, we hear one of the researcher playing the “Star-Spangled Banner” on what looks like a tiny twig with equally-spaced holes. It would be another extraordinary find if we could discover the pop tunes of the day.

Now, a note about watching this film in 3D. I admit as someone with an acute built-in motion sensor, I had to leave the theatre half way through the film when I first saw it in 3D. The roving camera plus the 3D effects had proven to be worse than being tossed at sea.

But I’m fortunate to be given a second chance. The film is now screened in another theatre without the 3D technology. I knew I must see the rest of it, so I returned for a second viewing. And this time, I stayed till the end.

A must-see documentary for all.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)”

  1. Brilliant! I have to see this… Thanks for sharing! (I’m with you on the 3D stuff. LOL!)

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    Michelle,

    I think you’ll really enjoy this film as a painter yourself. Feel free to stop by again and share your response when you’ve seen it. And, hopefully you can find some place that shows it without the 3D. 😉

    Arti

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  2. I so enjoy your reviews, Arti, I remember hearing about this extraordinary discovery around the time it happened, but did not know a documentary had been made of it. It’s now something I’ll seek out (shouldn’t be too hard to find over here in France) although seeing it in 3D might be more difficult. It’s hard to even wrap my head around the fact that the site remained unseen and undisturbed for that long.

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    Deborah,

    There’s a TIME magazine article on it and the explorers have written a book on Chauvet Cave. Also, you may even hop over to Pont d’Arc in Southern France for a visit to the beautiful Ardèche River valley!

    Arti

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  3. This is the sort of thing that makes my head reel (as well as 3D imaging!). To think that these paintings are so very old, and yet have been preserved so beautifully by time… It’s just amazing. Can you imagine how it must have felt to be part of the group that discovered them? My goodness, there really needs to be a word that describes trauma but in a very positive sense!

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    litlove,

    Yes, they couldn’t believe it. I read somewhere that Chauvet kept on asking himself: “Am I dreaming?”

    Arti

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  4. Thanks for posting this. I remember this discovery, and now I’m excited to see this movie. I love art, as well as Pleistocene mammals! Here’s a somewhat related post I wrote about a dig of Pleistocene mammal bones in a cave in Wyoming. http://catherinesherman.wordpress.com/2009/11/28/natural-trap-wyoming-1975/

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    Cathy,

    Thanks for the link to your wonderful post, and your experience must be most memorable for you. I’ve enjoyed your reporting and the photos. Quite something to come so close to an actual archeological dig… and here I am just watching a doc!

    Arti

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  5. Thanks for making us aware of this relatively recent discovery. I wonder how many more are waiting to be found.

    I don’t know what it is about hand prints, but many cultures around the world have had them. There are some indigenous ones on the limestone cliffs along Barton Creek right here in Austin.

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    Steve,

    You’re right about the possibility that there are more to be found. .. rock paintings or hand prints.

    Arti

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  6. I don’t stop by for a week and you go and change the decor! Very nice. The movie sounds great and the photos of the art you posted are absoluterly gorgeous!

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    Stefanie,

    I’m trying this out. Like to know what my readers think though. Darker background is good for photos, but not for text unfortunately.

    Arti

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  7. My goodness – look at the changes here! I’m not so fond of black backgrounds because I find reading more difficult. But you’ve put it together beautifully, and it is nice for the photos.

    I remember when these discoveries were made, but I wasn’t aware of the documentary. You’re right – it is a must-see.

    I’m especially taken with the handprint. Like so many children, I made a plaster-of-Paris cast of my hand when I was five. I painted it pink, and kept it for years, until it didn’t seem important any longer to keep it. Now, I wish I still had it. Perhaps I’d mount it in a shadowbox with this handprint as the background, or next to it. Feeling years or centuries collapse is one thing. Feeling entire human eras collapse is something else.

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    Linda,

    Yes, that would make an interesting display. As for the darker theme, I’m experimenting only… A black background is great for displaying photos, while a white one is better for text. Like you, I don’t think I like to read white text against black background. But, since I’m including quite a few photos, esp. of cave paintings, thought I’d keep the whole background dark, to enhance the effect. 🙂

    You might like to scroll down to two posts previous, where I had some fall photos, and that beautiful street in our city with the arched trees, take a look at that post, the photos sure are more impressive than with a white background.

    Arti

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    1. Yes, you’re right. The photos show very well.

      A friend who is both writer and photographer dealt with the problem by using a gray background and complimentary font color. It reduced the contrast enough that it was much easier to read. Even the slight background change here in the comment box is helpful.

      Ah, the joys of advancing age! But be assured, I’ll keep reading, whatever you choose for your layout.

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      Linda,

      Thanks for hanging in there while I experiment. As for the ‘joys’ that come with maturity, for sure, more are on the way. 😉

      Arti

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  8. I am catching up with your reviews. I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams when it was playing at our cinema. I was in awe at these paintings. We were the only two people watching the film in the theatre, so the movie only played for one week. Here in very conservative Georgia, watching paintings from 32,000 years ago is not of much interest, plus it is somewhere in France, not in the US….. In addition many here believe the earth is only 5,000 years old….

    As for Sarah’s Keys – I have not seen the movie because, again, it is not playing around here. It played for a couple of weeks while we were in NY. I read and enjoyed the book and bought 2 other books, in French, about the same subject (the Jews in France during the war) diaries by women. One thing that is maybe not too emphasized is that this was done by the Pétain government – which many French people despised. Many Jews were saved by French people at the time, regular people not just the Résistance. But the Pétain French Government sent Jews to the camps even when the Germans did not ask for them, like in the south of France where they would pick up foreign Jewish refugees – thousands of them. My mother was involved in saving many young girls while working in the south that is why I know about it.

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    1. Vagabonde,

      Thanks for your thought-provoking two-part comment. I’m glad you raised the issue regarding Cave, that gives me the opportunity to make clear a personal stance. As an adherent to the Christian faith, and one who believes in God, creation, and the Bible, I see no conflict in an ‘old earth theory’. Archeological and scientific discoveries only point to a magnificent, limitless Creator-God, the source of all artistic inspirations. In the film, we came upon a stone like an altar on which was a bear skull. It just points to the universal search for a higher being, a spiritual element in humans present as early as 30,000 years ago. For me, it’s an implication to a search that crosses all boundaries in time and space. I invite anyone interested to read these two reviews of this documentary: Christianity Today and the blog The Search.
      But of course, I feel the reason that the doc receives so limited exposure and releases is due to the bottom line: profits and marketability… the indie vs. Hollywood style battle.

      As for Sarah’s Key, I’m grateful that you’ve shared the heroic rescue your mother was involved in the south of France during the war. My highest admiration goes to her. I’m sure it took a high personal risk to do that, just like in the film, the farmer Dufaure and his wife who saved and hid Sarah and her friend and who later raised Sarah up to be their own child. Even though I may not have known anyone personally involved in rescue efforts like these, I’m informed by other sources like Schindler’s List and The Hiding Place. And you’re absolutely right in voicing the negative sentiments about the Vichy government and Marshal Pétain during the war. It’s the sensitive issue of separating the government and its leader with the people of a country, a problem that remains starkly painful even now years after the Holocaust. Again, for me, as an outsider, I’ve been informed mostly through books and films. Specifically I’m thinking of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, book and movie.

      Again, thanks for your careful reading and thoughtful commenting on my posts.

      Like

  9. Oh, Arti, I always learn something when I visit your blog, but this time, I am dazzled. I hope this film comes to our theatres (we don’t get everything, especially documentaries or foreign). The story is fascinating and it sounds visually stunning. Merci!

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    Thanks Jeanie. You may have to wait for the DVD when it comes out. Don’t miss it. 😉

    Arti

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  10. This is thrilling. I first read about Herzog’s project in the NY Review of Books and knew I had to see it. Then I forgot about it! So thank you, I have added it to my netflix queue.

    From the first second of the music I recognized Herzog. It took me back to “Aguirre the Wrath of God” seen so long ago, the only film of his I’ve seen, not a documentary. It is just so difficult to imagine that these tremendous drawings were rendered so long ago, and I can relate to the man in the trailer who could not go back in because of the emotional shock. The images are incredibly moving. My favorite parts of “The English Patient” film are the scenes in the cave, with the swimmers.

    Wonderful, thank you!

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    Ruth,

    By chance I was re-watching The English Patient on DVD recently, and right after, had to get the book out and reread it. Not too long later, this doc came out. I went to see “Cave” with my mind still fresh with all the images of swimmers from The English Patient. Such synchronicity! I’m sure you’ll find “Cave” mesmerizing. I was equally engrossed with the medium in the cave art in Chauvet, charcoal from prehistoric pine, and with the “Swimmers”, beautifully shot as the paintbrush caresses the textured paper at the beginning of the film. After this post, I’ve the urge to write a post on The English Patient, its characters, “Cave of Swimmers” (which is an actual discovery by the real life Count Almasy), and cartography… well, maybe someday. Thanks for your comment… we share some favorite films.

    Arti

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