Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica (The Fabric of the Human Body) is a veritable encyclopedia of the human form, a visual compendium of organic processes, functions, and systems. Taking its title from a 16th-century book of anatomy by Andreas Vaselius, the film comprises footage filmed in various French hospitals over a period of five or so years. After opening with the sight of a guard dog prowling through the basement corridors of a hospital, we cycle through footage that covers an impressive range of contrasts: scenes of geriatric patients wandering through hospital halls, a C-section birth sequence, prostate surgeries, and eye operations. These are of course thematically motivated, linked either to various aspects of organic functioning or the physical operations of the hospital. As in Leviathan (2012), though, a film that would not have been possible without GoPro cameras, much of the surface interest in De Humani derives from seeing footage captured by non-standard cameras, allowing us to image regions of the body that were once impossible to see.
There’s a natural comparison to be made between De Humani and Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), which, as Jonathan Rosenbaum writes, is “one of the most direct confrontations with death ever recorded.” This is often taken as a materialist thesis that we are nothing but physical matter, just aggregates of bodily systems and processes; and Paravel and Castiang-Taylor may be seen as affirming the very same in De Humani. But as the film goes on, what comes through most vividly is the opaqueness of the world, the idea that no matter what technology one uses, there is a real sense in which life is not something that can be imaged. The sight of a capsule propelled through the hospital’s pneumatic tube system recalls nothing less than the “Beyond the Infinite” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and indeed, De Humani offers a journey into inner space to match Kubrick’s odyssey to outer space. And despite their obvious differences, they arrive at virtually the same point, at the sense that organic existence — symbolized by Space Odyssey’s Star Child, or De Humani’s delivery sequence — contains enigmas that no scientific explanation can ever account for. What De Humani thus demonstrates is that the effort to go “beyond the infinite” is not a simple matter of location, not a question of “inside” or “outside,” but has to do, ultimately, with that mystery we call life.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.