The loftiest dream you can take with you into TIFF, or any film festival, is the hope of seeing something you’ve really never seen before — not just a new movie, not just a new one kind of the film, but maybe even a new way of looking at the world. De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the remarkable new experimental documentary from Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, raises that incredibly high bar. Your eyes won’t believe some of the things you see in this film. The only question is whether your stomach can handle it.
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor of Harvard’s renowned Sensory Ethnography Lab have made a name for themselves with a particularly haunting and formally adventurous collection of non-fiction. Her Leviathan took the audience on board a trawlerup close and personal with the fish fluttering on the ship’s deck and churning in the choppy seas below Caniba drawn chillingly close to the skin (and, intentionally, the unfathomable psychology) of a convicted cannibal killer. De Humani Corporis Fabrica, named after a Renaissance study of human anatomy, is perhaps their most comprehensive collaborative effort to date. Shot over a period of years, it goes into a series of French hospitals – and then into the patients inside, often via tiny cameras that transform state-of-the-art procedures into the stuff of real life Fantastic trip.
Fighting the urge to take your eyes off some of the most remarkable shots you’ve ever seen on film is a rare experience. The OP scenes in De Humani are amazing – less a cinematic operating room and more a guided tour of the body’s inner alien landscape. Extreme in several senses of the word, the close-ups plunge us right into the human brain, navigating the twists and turns of the intestinal tract and drawing a steadfast eye, well, a steadfast eye that goes under the finely-wielded knife. Many of these sequences are very graphic (sometimes hard for those with a degree of uneasiness about medical science) but also strangely beautiful, even uplifting. Is it possible to alienate and demystify the human body at the same time? Paravel and Castaing-Taylor get so close to organs and body orifices that they sometimes take on an abstract dimension, even as they render tangible anatomical processes that most of us have only grasped in the abstract.
The interest (and appeal) of the film is far from being purely medical. It’s visual, emotional, philosophical. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor get to the bottom of their subjects’ underlying vulnerabilities (speak of a triumph of access that literally examines hearts and minds) and unveil a fragility that unites all species. This is us Everyone are, beneath the surface. Her focus also often shifts to the men and women who perform these delicate procedures, whose overheard banter and banal conversations (“This guy’s funny put together,” jokes one) provide a prickly, comical counterbalance to the precision of their profession. The doctors must be quite emotionally detached from their work – it’s the only way they can go about their day-to-day work without losing their minds – but they are far from indifferent machines. De Humani Corporis Fabrica performs a diagnosis on the body of a hospital, digging into the flesh of the patients and the personalities of the doctors.
Their background may be academic research, but Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are artists at heart, perhaps poets as well. Her formal ambition and intellectual curiosity set her apart from the accountants of the documentary field. They want to turn the world upside down to gain an understanding that mere facts and figures cannot provide. In more ways than one De Humani Corporis Fabrica is her most sensitive film. It left this author with a deeper understanding of the proverbial, universal self – and perhaps what it means to be human. I couldn’t look away even if I wanted to. And I can’t wait to catch up again.
Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues throughout the week. For more of AA Dowd’s publications, see his author page.
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