Filtering the world’s oldest paintings through the latest in cinematic technology, Werner Herzog delivers a one-of-a-kind art-history lesson in “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.” Granted rare access to the Chauvet Cave in southern France, captured via 3D footage that accords depth to every contour, the director uses these magnificent prehistoric canvases to reflect on the immensity and fragility of human enterprise, yielding an experience both meditative and amusingly digressive in the helmer’s inimitable fashion. Herzogians will need no convincing to join the expedition, and though B.O. penetration may depend on the availability of 3D-ready arthouses, auds will dig it in 2D, too.

Discovered in 1994 in the valley near France’s Ardeche River, the Chauvet Cave contains the oldest such paintings on record (some of them 32,000 years old), almost perfectly preserved when collapsing rocks sealed off the entrance some 25,000 years ago. Inspired by a New Yorker piece written by Judith Thurman (credited here as a co-producer), Herzog became the first filmmaker permitted by the French Ministry of Culture to shoot inside the cave, joining a small archaeological team for a few weeks in the spring of 2010.

The director has journeyed to the rainforests of Peru and the farthest reaches of Antarctica, but he’s never filmed under such uniquely exacting conditions as those here. Near-toxic levels of carbon dioxide and radon meant he and his camera crew (led by d.p. Peter Zeitlinger) could enter the cave for only a few hours each day; once inside, they were not allowed to deviate from a two-foot-wide walkway, along which they had to maneuver a small 3D-camera rig and three battery-powered light sources.

The necessity of such precautions becomes apparent, however, once the film offers its first glimpse inside the cave — a dark wonderland of luminescent stalactites, the ground strewn with ancient pawprints and the skulls of long-extinct cave bears. But what rivets the attention is the rock art, an astonishing treasure trove of Paleolithic masterworks — charcoal drawings of different animal species such as horses, lions, rhinos and bears, etched into the cave’s walls. The pictures are at once primitive and sophisticated; the curvature of the rocks (rendered in 3D with an acute sense of texture and depth) helps lend the drawings the illusion of movement, suggesting, as Herzog says in voiceover, “a form of proto-cinema.” And as with cinema, the very thing that enables human appreciation — exposure to light and the elements — is what will ultimately hasten its decay.

Herzog seems visibly excited by what he’s showing us, and his rhapsodic narration teems with ideas concerning not only the paintings’ artistic significance, but also the nature of time — the way it preserves yet dwarfs most human achievements, the tendency of creations to outlive their creators, and the impossibility of reconstructing the past from artifacts alone. There are moments when the helmer’s enthusiasm, though always welcome, seems at odds with the mood of transcendent wonder he’s trying to conjure. Fortunately, he eventually quiets down long enough to let the viewer behold the paintings in something resembling silence, while Ernst Reijseger’s music — a gorgeous meld of string-based orchestrations and choral harmonies — strikes the appropriate mood of awe.

Pic is inevitably less compelling when it leaves the cave and takes on a more anthropological angle, as Herzog interviews archaeologists and professors in an effort to piece together information about the artists themselves (though little is known). The 3D is ill judged in certain outdoor scenes, with headache-inducing image distortions and upside-down handheld footage; given Herzog’s sense of mischief and often skeptical attitude toward Hollywood, this may not be entirely accidental.

While “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” has fewer eccentric detours and non sequiturs than much of the helmer’s work, he does find time for a segment about the region’s radioactive albino alligators (which have mutated as a result of the nearby nuclear power plant), and somehow manages to make them relevant to the subject at hand.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

  • Production: A History Films presentation of a Creative Differences production, in participation with the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, Dept. of Cultural Heritage, in co-production with Arte France, in association with More 4. (International sales: Submarine Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Erik Nelson, Adrienne Ciuffo. Executive producers, Dave Harding, Julian P. Hobbs, David McKillop, Molly Thompson. Co-producers, Amy Briamonte, Phil Fairclough, Judith Thurman, Nicolas Zunino. Directed, written by Werner Herzog.
  • Crew: Camera (color, 3D), Peter Zeitlinger; editors, Joe Bini, Maya Hawke; music, Ernst Reijseger; sound, Eric Spitzer. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 14, 2010. Running time: 89 MIN.
  • With: With: Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Wulf Hein, Maria Malina, Maurice Maurin. Narrator: Werner Herzog. (English, French dialogue)