Back in 1970, documentarian extraordinaire Frederick Wiseman offered a glimpse into the wiring and stitching of the Metropolitan Hospital in New York City in the simply titled Hospital. A rare glimpse into the simultaneously quotidian and delicate nature of the precarious American health care system, Hospital was something of a cinematic marvel: what does this place look like from a birds-eye view, in which life and death dance together on a high-wire act of both empathy and callous industry?
De Humani Corporis Fabrica is a stunning and rare feat. The latest experimental and experiential documentary from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, takes up Wiseman's ethos by plunging us, literally, into the human body. Shot in various rooms and back hallways of French hospitals, the film is a rare glimpse into an all-together foreign realm. Though the movie is shot with novel access, it recalls cinema's early days, when English photographer Eadweard Muybridge used the new apparatus to answer some of science's more persistent questions of bodies, human and otherwise, in motion.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel focus our attention on invasive surgeries, the routine care of corpses and molecular examinations of cancer-ridden cells; simultaneously a running "story" of sorts develops as a group of women, most likely senile, hold hands in a bizarre ritual of roaming the hospital halls in search of a man named Roland. Peppered over these extended scenes of surgery are ambient conversations amongst doctors and nurses, innocuous little dialogues about rent hikes in Clichy or hospital employment rates; these nuggets of chatter over high stakes operations emphasizes these slippery atmospheres in which caregivers work, in which our fragile human bodies hang in the balance. The cumulative effect of these scenes, sometimes hard to fathom, others banal, is like a rooted version of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), no less evident than in an ethereally disturbing scene where a background cawing sound is revealed as emanating from the mouth of an isolated woman on death's doorstep.
If the film sounds difficult to watch, it is because it frequently is; yet Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's unflinching gaze on these scenes of the human body forces us to push past initial discomfort into the area of detached observation. This is, simply, what the body is, and what it is ultimately capable of. The clicks and clacks of this world are highlighted in a way that recalls nothing less than smoke-filled rooms of journalism, mechanical typewriters and cash registers. Yet, here what we hear is the wheel of time, bodies breaking down and healing in equal measure. De Humani Corporis Fabrica, for all its persistent imagery of the blood and guts that make up all of us, is ultimately an esoteric wonder. Its camera zooms in and out of a Hieronymous Bosch-like mural, a pastiche of humanity's capability for survival, persistence and joy.