Closer in to the camera crew on the walkway we see swells of stone that half-shelter the pregnant mare’s niche. Painted on one is a herd of sturdy bison warily watching an even closer bulge of rock covered with a pride of lions. Interestingly, most of the animals painted are at side view, but there are a very few full-face wisent or aurochs depicted, looking back over their shoulders at the viewer. Here is the sole moment where the 3D, I feel, comes into its own: you can actually get a good sense of distance and motion as the camera’s eye leads you in through the curving swells of the cave walls, ever deeper, until you reach that final wary little mare.
It is here, too, that I have that spine-tingling sense of sudden revelation — that world-bending instant in your head when you have an idea so marvelous, so new to you, that you must share its potential — even if you are not sure of its factuality! Staring mesmerized at the 3D depictions on-screen, it hits me where I have seen this before: the cave itself shapes the curves of hills and valleys, as seen by an observer standing safely one hillside distant. The paintings are a rendition of the wildlife — both real and desired — which could be found in that area, painted as if it were shifting through time like prehistoric time-lapse photography!
Looking close up at the painted stone in one spot, we can see a swarm of small mammoths with curiously poodle-like puffs about each ankle; perhaps the result of summer shedding? Oddly larger — perhaps closer to the painter’s present-day? — is an entire pride of lions in the same area. Near the pride, and standing nearer than they would in actuality, are many rhinos and a series of shaggy bull heads. Do the curving horns of the several different species perhaps all speak to the same symbolic meaning in the prehistoric painter?
Directly behind the viewer, in a sort of physical surrounding effect, is the peculiarly shaped stone stalactite with the amazing goddess painted on its hidden side, flanked by her aurochs and her lion. Does this show a goddess descended from above, or the combination of the birthing Mother painted on a downward hanging, rather phallic-shaped stone, or some other symbolism entirely? Directly opposite the pendant with the Lady on it are the painted rhinos on the left, the pride of lions on the right; they are arranged opposite to the aurochs and lion on the pendant stone. If you were to turn in a slow circle, it would seem as if the animals of like species all melded together — and the viewer were surrounded in lusty, bellowing, roaring life.
Seen like this, the paintings are incredibly, beautifully moving to me. You can see several different styles of art from this spot, as if the lovely and meaningful art was added to over time. One lion, for example, is wide mouthed but does not have a well-defined face; her nose seems over-large — almost as if the artist had experienced a lion at far too close range! Others of the pride have a really strikingly lovely curve of jaw and distinctive long roman noses; the line-work is exquisitely evocative.
From this encircled spot in the cave you can also just catch sight of the deepest niche, framed by the pride of lions on one side, and the herds of rhino and aurochs on the other. The birthing mare is barely visible within, her front legs buckling as if she’s about to go down on her side for the foal to emerge, and her pregnant belly wiped cleanly and whitely away. Is this the remains of some ancient symbolic ritual?
As I stare, entranced and deeply moved, the thoughtful scientist and I have much the same contemplations: is this — these magnificent, sweeping panoramas — what is truly symbolic of humanness? For all the spearheads and chipped blades found, no tool has been able to speak so clearly of life and death, birth and hope, the spiritual and the pragmatic, as these paintings by our ancestors. What are remnants of weapons or flute fragments in comparison to an entire creative ethos? How can the silly little illusions of “man the hunter” hope to compare to the sheer impact, the evocative beauty, of our species as spiritual beings which span the dimensions of both time and space — as a true “homo spiritualis”?
Further: is art better than language for us to communicate effectively over the millennia? I would say so, considering how deeply this art moves us even after these thousands upon thousands of years… but oh, how we struggle still for understanding of meaning!
Ending here would have been a truly beautiful and thought-provoking closure for the film. Unfortunately I do not think Herzog sufficiently trusted his audience — or perhaps he himself couldn’t quite grasp the sheer, breathtaking wonder of the magnificent paintings in Chauvet. Perhaps he wanted to add something more ‘topical’ or shocking. Consequently, instead of leaving the audience with the previous strikingly lovely visuals and ruminations, Herzog tacked a prominently titled “Postscript” onto the movie, closing it with — believe it or not — albino crocodiles.
I wish I could say this was just a joke… but unfortunately it is not. The clearly-added-later Postscript is confusingly surreal, almost utterly meaningless within the context of the prehistoric art. Not a single person I have spoken to, after having the ending described to them, has given me any initial reaction other than, “He did what?!” Regardless of my feelings on the matter, here’s the quickie synopsis of the movie’s Postscript.
The narrator (which I believe has been Herzog all along) informs us that the Rhone River has a nuclear powerplant on it some 20 miles or so beyond Chauvet, as the crow flies. Half a mile away from the powerplant are tropical greenhouses which the French created from housing over the ejected steamy water which was used to cool the powerplant. Herzog emphasizes the radiation in the water (there is none), and that the tropical areas within the greenhouses are enormous and somehow always expanding.
At some point a few crocodiles were introduced into the greenhouses, and there are hundreds now, thriving in this protected environment. As is common with crocodiles in captivity, eventually a white croc was born, and the French interestedly selected for that. Now there are lots and lots of these white “mutant albinos,” as Herzog refers to them. I find this perplexing, since a) all of us are the result of mutations, both favorable and unfavorable — that is the essence of evolution, after all, no? and b) I was under the impression true albinos had red eyes; these crocs have pretty golden eyes. I find myself disturbed at Herzog’s apparently utterly irresponsible attempts to stir pointless shit up just for the fun of it.