Documentary film, by Werner Herzog (2010).
In some ways, it has the ordinariness of any quasi-governmental facility: it's out in Rhone wine country, and the nearest landmark is someone's vineyard -- here in Connecticut, it would probably be adjoining a apple orchard. To get to the Cave, there's a sturdy wooden walkway, and the entrance itself is behind a steel door which, in Herzog's narration is "like a bank vault", but to my eyes, looks gently anonymous, as if someone had simply hollowed out a Cold War era bomb shelter, and refitted it as storage for -- what? wine from that vineyard? Servers for the local ISP? Or old movies…old photographs…archives of old pictures..
It's limestone country there, though, and rock is more permeable there than here: over time, water dripping through wears it away, in one case, opening a dramatic archway near the paintings through which a river runs. Herzog calls it Romantic, Wagnerian (which called down the wrath of one reviewer, who invoked the Holocaust and what gives that German so-and-so the business of imposing his country's bogus mythology on people who would never have known such). It does look fairy-tale-like, though. If that river were frozen, and I could walk underneath, I might be mighty superstitious about that arch, the way the Romans were about their triumphal arches: passing under one meant you were no longer a soldier, if you were one, and even today, at least one arch in Rome carries a powerful taboo. The limestone makes the ground alkaline, and makes the wine there have a natural affinity for shellfish: ancient seabeds greeting new oysters. And, it makes for caverns, and in some cases, dramatic cave-ins.
Cave art was first discovered in northern Spain, where it was for many centuries, a local mystery. Almost everywhere there, where there was a cave, there were red dots, handprints, and strange beasties, a delight for venturesome kids with candles and a sense of adventure. Some people believed them to be the work of Roman soldiers, others were sure the Rom had done the deed, or that it was some kind of thieves' code. John Singer Sergeant, not knowing the age or scale of the paintings, scribbled a few scrawls and a bison on a tavern wall in his painting of a flamenco dancer.
Not unsurprisingly, familiarity bred, if not contempt, a certain lack of respect for the phenomenon. Very few of the caves remain in good condition for study, and, even those have suffered a good deal of wear and tear from various rubberneckers ranging from aforesaid children to casual tourists who just had to check Altamira off on their Life List, to outright vandals. (More on this later.) Chauvet escaped it all because of a cave-in at just the right time, thus preserving its treasures, paintings from our next-species-over, from a much earlier date than any seen thus far.
We see the Cave in all its mystery and some of the people who love and study it: a former circus unicyclist turned hunky archeologist, a mad-eyed former perfumer (we are in France) who uses olfactory cues to navigate caves, a man who dresses in reindeer pelts to play "The Star Spangled Banner" on a bone flute, possibly the world's least impressive spear-chucking (with a spear chucker) demonstration, and others.
The paintings themselves remind me powerfully of Wanda Gag's charcoal illustrations from the 1930's: little wonder most people (at first) took them to be fakes. The burro-like horses have well-defined whinnying? singing? mouths and delicate white circles around their eyes, while on the other side of the scale, there's a grotesque with a lolling tongue and teeth coming out of the sides of its mouth, similar to a tweeny boy's stabs at cartooning. That it comes right next to a series of perfectly executed bison's heads in an awesome procession of animals gives me pause -- was he a maverick? untrained in the art? or simply (as is the case with children) somehow outgrowing the ability to draw well? (While the paintings and the general style of the art looks uniform through the Cave, there are other anomalies: a series of paintings of insects--not a popular subject in any ancient art--and a bull creeping up on the lower torso of a woman. Most amusing of all is the painting of a male lion courting a non estral female who looks thoroughly Not Amused.)
That there is a progression of development is pointed out by one archeologist: first, the figures were engraved on the walls, then gradually, over what could have been millennia, filled in with paint, patted on by hands, sprayed on with reeds or even conventionally brushed on. Although some figures appear to be from the easy, playful hand of a sumi-e ink painter, a close look shows just how carefully and deeply layered the paint actually is.
I remember having a favorite place on East Rock Park: locally, it's known as Mount Whitney, after the gun factory five hundred feet below. It's covered, not in ancient pigments, but in spray paint, memorializing loves and heroes.
"But, don't you realize," I said "they're the same people. They're only doing what their parents did, and what their parents did, way back into the centuries. OK, so they have a really bad choice of colors, and maybe they don't respect the same heroes, but aren't they just keeping the custom of their own kind? You call it vandalism, but maybe you ought to try to understand their side a little better."
I was called a hopeless romantic, and anyway, vandalism isn't witty.
It ends with the by-now familiar paintings, a lot of incredible music -- and then, there is an epilogue. With doppleganging albino atomic mutant crocodiles, no less. Don't ask...