This humanist portrait of care, surgery and technology is Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s most overtly socially conscious work.
In their astonishing new feature De Humani Corporis Fabrica, filmmakers Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor once more tease and prod conventional definitions of the term “documentary”. In this instance, they ask whether it’s the human body itself that’s a miracle, or the work done by people whose job it is to repair the body when it breaks.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica escorts us on a whirlwind tour of various Parisian hospitals and specialist units as seen through the shallow-focus eye of a tricked-out endoscopy camera. Once through the doors of each institution, we then burrow deeper, into the cloistered privacy of operating theatres and, occasionally, inside the damaged bodies of the patients themselves.
The first thing this film does which is of particular note is that its purpose-built camera has synched sound, so it is not only able to pick up the symphony of boggy squelches that come when forceps are pulling at flesh and organs, but also the comically banal conversations being had by the doctors and surgeons as they’re working. At one point, we zoom Inner Space-style through a small intestine in search of lesions or lacerations while earwigging on a conversation about rent hikes in Clichy.
The film’s opening sequence lays out the political framework for the project at large, as an overworked nurse complains to a colleague about never-ending shifts, lack of resource, dwindling support and the desperate need for extra hands on deck. She claims that the trinkets and prizes given out in recognition of duty from government health bodies acts as a cover-up for the fact that this already-precarious system is on the verge of crumbling.
This handy and articulate tirade in turn makes the ensuing sequences of surgery all the more astounding, as the technical marvels on show are being carried out by people with thick stubble, drooping eyelids and faint memories of their last proper break. Alongside 2012’s game-changing Leviathan, De Humani Corporis Fabrica is the pair’s most overtly socially conscious work, and while there is certainly focus on the suffering of patients and healthcare workers alike, the selection of material tends to err on the affirmative, if not downright transcendent.
To those who might be put off by the prospect of monitoring a diverse array of surgical procedures in extreme close-quarters, fear not: there’s nothing here that’s intended to provoke or repel, and the filmmakers can never be accused of exploiting their images as example of morally-detached gore. Quite the opposite in fact, as we are shown: the hard (but necessary) realities of, say, an emergency cesarean section; the jaw-dropping array of instruments and techniques used in a keyhole prostate examination; and the resilience of a damaged spinal column as it takes a pummelling from mallets, drills and wrenches while having metal struts attached to it.
One thing that lifts this above the type of hospital-based docu-drama that are ten-a-penny on the small screen is that Paravel and Castaing-Taylor locate a uniquely cinematic quality to the footage. The visual wonderment of flashing through slides of metastasized cancer cells that have been dyed purple harks back to vivid abstract expressionist canvases while never losing sight of their true, gravely serious application.
There are also many references to classic movies that emanate from many of the episodes, such as an awe-striking eyeball examination that plays like a reverse of the famous razor slice in Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. There are also shots of an elderly patient yelping, along, in a share that are framed like Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, while the trip sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is subtly name-checked in a sequence when a medical sample is blasted at high speeds through a postal tube.
Alongside these allusions to art and cinema, the film also draws intriguing connections between the medical profession and gaming, as surgeons ply their trade no longer while leaning over clamped-open rib cages, but with advance controllers which they manoeuvre while looking at a screen. The magic of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s work is that so much of it is open for abstract interpretation, and this magnificent new one is no exception.
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Published 25 May 2023
A new tactile documentary from Harvard’s Ethnographic Film Lab.
A fantastic voyage into the great beyond of the human body.
One of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s most challenging and beguiling works.