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The latest adventure in perception from Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor takes its title from Vesalius's 1543 catalog of the human form that was both scientific compendium and work of art. "De Humani Corporis Fabrica," Paravel and Castaing-Taylor's experimental nonfiction film, also explores the many landscapes and textures of our bodies, as examined and broached within the institutional settings of French hospitals. Through these directors' eyes, these bodies look wondrous and unsettling, macabre and beautiful, and often uncannily unfamiliar.
That viewpoint feels novel because your average person (who isn't a doctor) hasn't spent much time poking around inside abdomens and skulls, or eavesdropping on surgeons chatting during operations. But the body is also an unfamiliar spectacle here because Paravel and Castaing-Taylor are adepts of Harvard University's formally innovative Sensory Ethnography Lab. They bear witness in ways that foster different perspectives on being in our world.
In their brilliant 2012 film "Leviathan," that meant setting small GoPro cameras loose on a fishing vessel at sea. "De Humani" deploys custom-made cameras and incorporates medical imagery including laparoscopic surgery and unexpectedly magnificent slides of tissue samples. Instead of a comprehensive view, this is a largely phantasmagorical journey through color and texture punctuated with unfiltered glimpses of medical staff at work. The movie's first half-hour, for example, goes from a doctor's musing monologue to a patient being prepped for a brain operation while awake.
This transition — from stream of consciousness to physically being inside someone's head — reflects the movie's darkly comic streak, which starts to feel like a sane response to the fragile-feeling reality of human tissue. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor embrace the physical, hard-core facts of repairing a body: the trippy insertion of a lens into someone's unblinking pale blue eye, or a shambolic prostate procedure with horrific-hilarious surgeon dialogue ("This is a nightmare!").
Next to these scenes, the care shown by an all-woman team of doctors and nurses during a C-section and subsequent newborn exam feels especially tender. The film's sometimes brusque transitions and decentered perspectives are just as transgressive as any of the graphic imagery. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor like to wrench us into and out of close-up settings instead of offering traditional establishing shots. They also occasionally drop in on guards circulating through graffiti-covered subterranean corridors — the infrastructure of buildings where bodily infrastructure is treated.
The riotous visuals of innards illustrate the many ways in which our lives are embodied, but, equally or more so, that we are basically meat. (The vibe of the film's Latin title oscillates between philosophy and heavy metal.) We also keep returning to vexing sequences in a geriatric unit, especially two older women inching along hallways, repeating phrases. The camera is near yet eerily unplaceable, suggesting a purgatorial daze, and there's a profound sense of the vulnerability of our existence in the world.
Vesalius dedicated his work to the Holy Roman Emperor; centuries later, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor conclude theirs with a disco inferno. It's an unexpected scene of celebration and release but, as so often with this team, it resists what you might expect. The avant-garde director Stan Brakhage titled his filmed visit to a morgue "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes." These two filmmakers too keep pushing themselves and us to look anew.— Nicolas Rapold, The New York Times
Sponsored by NEST Studios for the Arts
Sun September 17, 7:00 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium
France, Switzerland; 2023; in French; 118 min • official site
Director: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel