The loftiest dream you can carry into TIFF, or any film festival for that matter, is the hope of seeing something you’ve truly never seen before — not just a new movie, not just a new kind of movie, 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, clears that impossibly high bar. Your eyes will not believe some of the things they see in this movie. The only question is whether your stomach can handle them.
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, of Harvard’s esteemed Sensory Ethnography Lab, have carved a name for themselves with an especially visceral and formally adventurous body of nonfiction work. Their Leviathan took audiences aboard a trawler, getting up close and personal with the fish flopping on the deck of the vessel and churning in the choppy sea below, while Caniba pulled in sickeningly close to the skin (and, in intention anyway, the unknowable psychology) of a convicted cannibalistic murderer. De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which is named for a Renaissance-era study of human anatomy, may be their most immersive joint effort yet. Shot over a period of several years, it goes inside a number of French hospitals — and then, from there, inside the patients within them, often via tiny cameras that turn cutting-edge procedures into the stuff of a real-life Fantastic Voyage.
It’s a rare experience, fighting the urge to avert your eyes from some of the most remarkable footage you’ve ever seen in a movie. The surgery scenes in De Humani are astonishing—less a cinematic operating theater than a guided tour of the inner alien landscape of the body. The closeups, extreme in multiple senses of the word, plunge us right into the human brain, navigate the twists and turns of the intestinal tract, and set an unblinking eye on, well, an unblinking eye going under the delicately wielded knife. Many of these sequences are very graphic (those with any amount of queasiness about medical science are in for a rough sit at times), but also oddly beautiful, even edifying. Is it possible to defamiliarize and demystify the human body at once? Paravel and Castaing-Taylor get so close to organs and orifices that they sometimes take on an abstract dimension, even as they capture in tangible terms anatomical processes most of us have only ever grasped in an abstract way.
The film’s interest (and appeal) is far from purely medical. It’s visual, emotional, philosophical. In getting to the fundamental vulnerability of their subjects (talk about a triumph of access, literally examining hearts and minds), Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are exposing a fragility that unites all of the species. This is who we all are, under the surface. Their focus often drifts, too, to the men and women performing these delicate procedures, whose overheard banter and banal conversation (“This guy’s put together weird,” one quips) provides a spiky comic counterbalance to the precision of their profession. The doctors have to be fairly emotionally detached from the work — it’s the only way they can do it day in and day out without losing their minds — but they’re far from uncaring machines. De Humani Corporis Fabrica runs a diagnostic on the body of a hospital, digging into the flesh of patients and the personalities of the practitioners.
Their background may be academic research, but Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are artists at heart, maybe poets too. Their formal ambition and intellectual curiosity sets them apart from the accountants of the documentary realm. They want to turn the world inside out, to gain an understanding mere facts and figures can’t provide. In multiple respects, De Humani Corporis Fabrica is their most empathetic film. It left this writer with a deeper understanding of the proverbial, universal self — and maybe with what it means to be human. I couldn’t look away, even when I wanted to. And I can’t wait to wince through it again.
Our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival continues all week. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.