Review: De humani corporis fabrica
by David Katz
- CANNES 2022: Gut-wrenching but never grotesque, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s new documentary is an opera of the operating table
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel are unique in the current non-fiction world for approaching their work not as mere documentarians, but also as anthropologists. That is, as scholars of human cultures and their development over time. De humani corporis fabrica [+see also:
interview: Véréna Paravel, Lucien Cast…
film profile], for all that’s troubling about it, will serve as a record of how advanced societies treat complex medical ailments at this stage in the 21st century. Through this, another thought comes to mind – will what’s on display here seem primitive however many decades hence?
Their first feature to premiere at Cannes, where it bowed last week in the Directors’ Fortnight, De humani corporis fabrica is like if one of Frederick Wiseman’s immersive documentary studies instead had rougher, rawer imagery, with grot and gunge seeping into each pristinely controlled frame. Here, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel – most noted for their 2012 fishing-industry account Leviathan [+see also:
film profile] – take their cameras, and borrow a few of their hosts’ own imaging technologies, to survey a number of French hospitals and their surgical and intensive care units.
The early months of one’s medical-school training involve hospital visits like these – “living” seminars where doctors-to-be can gather around the equipment, machinery and bloody tissue, and ask questions (or maybe joke – medics have an infamous sense of humour). The process can also be one of desensitisation, where exposure to organs extracted and turned inside out should no longer raise the medical professional’s own blood pressure. De humani corporis fabrica – a film whose extremity caused reams of walkouts at its first screening – can be a bit like trying to absorb “Surgery 101” in less than two hours, where the objects being pointed out lose their meaning, leaving us to immerse ourselves in endoscopic views that show off our insides as expressionistic sites of vivid colour.
When the most extreme work in the horror genre can only showcase simulated gore, this is the authentic stuff, shown with academic disinterest and chilliness by the filmmakers. After a short prologue – a clearing of the throat – following a security guard patrolling the hospital’s underground car park, the succeeding image shows a man’s skull being prepared for neurosurgery, with a hole bored in the periosteum for a thin vertical instrument, and an endoscopic camera, to travel through. The directorial duo received many accusations of dreadful taste for their revolting, yet sometimes insightful, cannibal portrait Caniba [+see also:
film profile], and this discomfort returns again, although their provocations – justified, for them, by cutting-edge thinking in their realm of the social sciences – are always deliberate. And the positive, or humanist, aspect of this film makes itself known as we realise this procedure has been a success, and that the trade-off for this physical pain and indignity is the saving of someone’s life.
Juxtaposed with the off-screen voices of the doctors, who converse about mundane things, make the occasional dark joke, and sometimes complain about stressful hours and working conditions, we journey with the filmmakers from head to toe: intra-pupil eye surgery, a cancer examination involving a biopsy of a full breast, a prostatectomy, and a procedure where an instrument that looks like a hair straightener in, to quote, “a Kalashnikov setting”, encases a penis and then aggressively judders on top of it.
This film is a real achievement – one of the most detailed visual anatomies, supplemented by movement and sound, of what we are actually composed of to date.
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