Around the paintings, Herzog gathers a coterie of commentators, some more serious than others. The two truly unrectified dorks were the “experimental archaeologist,” who dresses in furs and plays a reconstructed bone flute to get inside the head of his revered Cro-Magnon forebear, and the befuddled “master perfumer” who finds the smells in the cave too attentuated to state anything conclusive. Seriously, how did that guy gain access? Herzog should never have shown such clemency.
Of those whose social awkwardness was more subdued, three remain in my memory: the ex-unicyclist and dreamer of lions, the lady in charge who talked about the hand print panel, and the speleologist Jean-Michel Chauvet, who was one of the cave’s three discoverers. Chauvet seems to have been given the most camera time, partially I suppose because of his status as discoverer and partially because of the photogenic charm of his unkempt Einstein look. While most of his insights didn’t strike me as interesting as I’d hoped they’d be, two at least stand out as they give voice to Herzog’s overriding concerns.
If memory serves, the first occurs in an interview on the banks of the Ardèche, in the shadow of the Pont d’Arc (see below). There Chauvet admits that despite all the painstaking archaeological work, despite having literally mapped every square millimetre of the cave, there is very little that we truly know and very little that we can assuredly say about the people or the culture that produced these paintings. He then remarks that we should rename our species. Homo Sapiens we are not. We are not the wise or knowing hominid, at least with respect to the matter of ourselves and of our origins.
Both in the film and in the NPR interview, Herzog suggests that the Chauvet paintings mark the birth of the modern human soul. But the paintings don’t help to explain the mystery of this event, since they are the representations of that soul already in full bloom. Rather, they simply mark the mystery of the origin as absolutely impenetrable. We thus cannot help but view the paintings in light of our ignorance, itself born of the fracture between present and past. The paintings are a cipher. And as such, they are a temptation. They tempt us to interpretation…