Shine a Light

    My first thought, on hearing that Werner Herzog had managed to get inside the Chauvet cave to film the prehistoric paintings, was: you lucky bastard. The French are good at many things, but they are particularly good at keeping film-makers out of their caves. Those of us who have spent decades trying to get into any of the great French painted caves — let alone Chauvet, the Sistine chapel of the Upper Paleolithic — can only shake our heads at Herzog’s success and weep greedily. How did he manage that?
    It turns out that the great man wangled himself an audience with the only power on earth that could get him through the impenetrable wall of hardened French nay-sayers that has calcified across the entrance to Chauvet: France’s minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterrand, a fan of Herzog’s films. Apparently, he offered to become a temporary employee of the French government for a salary of €1. Thus, the French ministry of culture would get itself a new Herzog movie for free, while we fortunate filmgoers would finally be allowed a glimpse inside the cave of wonders.
    Actually, we get far more than a glimpse. Cave of Forgotten Dreams is 90 minutes long. And on top of the mouthwatering access, the entire experience has been filmed in 3-D, so for most of the time it feels as if the caves are actually coming to you, rather then you going to the caves. Having previously considered 3-D an unnecessary movie gimmick, designed to make us pay more for our seats, I happily admit, in this instance, to being wrong. There are many moments here that quicken the pulse. Many that are remarkable. And a few that are absolutely awesome.
    Chauvet was discovered on December 18, 1994, at about 3pm, when three French cavers exploring the gorge of the River Ardèche found a hole in the rocks 30in wide and 10in high. One of the cavers, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, was a woman, so she was sent ahead into the smallest spaces and had the honour of being the first human for 20,000 years to glimpse the stupendous animal picturings painted on the walls inside. It fell to one of the men on the team, however, Jean-Marie Chauvet, to have the new cave named after him.
    I first heard of Chauvet a few months later, when a hurried newspaper report announced that an amazing store of Paleolithic paintings had been found in the Ardèche gorge.
    The paintings were dated to about 30,000 years ago. Which was 10,000 years earlier than the prehistoric masterpieces of Lascaux. I had been fortunate enough to visit Lascaux before the French closed it down, and had been bitten all over by the cave-art bug, as any sentient human being would have been. Cave art is the earliest tangible evidence we have of the human imagination expressing itself.
    Nobody is generally allowed into Chauvet, because of the harmful moulds and bacteria that visitors introduce, but, once a year, in the spring, a team of scientists enters the cave for a few short days to work and measure. In 2010, they were joined by a four-man film crew consisting of a cameraman, a sound recordist, the cameraman’s assistant and Herzog himself on lights. They were using a specially designed 3-D rig that was unusually small and portable. Shooting in 3-D basically involves filming from two angles at once, so the equipment is intrinsically cumbersome. On its technical merits alone, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a Hades of an achievement.