Credit: Grasshopper Film
by Ryan Akler-Bishop Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

Re-Interrogating the Body: An Interview With Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel

April 21, 2023

Anthropologist-filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s work dissolves the space between their camera and their subject. Previous films Leviathan and Caniba both treat their respective subjects — the marine landscapes of commercial fishing, the domestic world of an infamous cannibal — with startling intimacy, but the proximity of their filmmaking finds new extremes with De Humani Corporis Fabrica, an observational exploration of eight Parisian hospitals. This new film unfolds across subterranean infirmary tunnels, operating tables, and inside patients’ bodies; it was assembled over the course of six years, and presents an unflinching document of state-of-the-art surgical procedures, directing our gaze to otherwise unseeable sights of the human interior.

In the spirit of Stan Brakhage’s monumental autopsy documentation The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, De Humani probes the experience of looking at otherwise imperceptible depths of the human body. The film facilitates an encounter between spectators and the most disavowed corners of their biology. There’s no shortage of haunting corporeal images, visions of the body at its most frail and vulnerable — and yet the film asks us to reckon with what it means to be repelled by the sight of our own biology. At the crux of De Humani’s ambitious feat (both formally and thematically) is the groundwork for a new relationship with our own bodies, beyond fear and abjection. I spoke with Castaing-Taylor and Paravel about bodily anxiety and the political imperative of looking at the body in De Humani; Alice Diop’s reaction to the film; David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future; the work of Walter Benjamin; and plenty more.

As I understand it, the idea for your last movie, Caniba, began with you researching Japanese Pink films and then reorienting your focus towards Issei Sagawa when you realized he appeared in a Hisayasu Satō film. Did De Humani have a similar trajectory of shifting focus, or was the central concept solidified from the beginning of your research?

LCT: We read an interview that we apparently gave to a French newspaper called Libération — a New York Times-y thing for France — I think in 2011 that said we were already working on this project, which is hard to believe. I think it was just in the idea stage. There were lots of original ideas. One of them was Walter Benjamin’s concept of the Optical Unconscious, where he basically compared the way cinema allows us to perceive the world to the way a surgeon making an incision in the body can perceive the body. I never really believed in that metaphor, even though it’s very trendy in critical theory/academic circles. But I wanted to put it to the test… what would happen if we literalized that metaphor? What does it mean to study surgery with an empirical visual proximity and intensity that’s never really been done before? That was one conceptual start.

We started filming in university-affiliated hospitals in Boston. But it was impossible to make this film in the US because the doctors no longer have any rights over the imagery they need to undertake these surgeries. Though the medical staff was super open, the hospital administrations were really closed-off. It would’ve been different if we were coming in from some major cable network and could’ve given them millions of dollars, but that wasn’t an option. Then we met François Crémieux, who was the head of some hospitals in Paris. He does many things. He’s not really a filmmaker himself, but he did make three films with Chris Marker: The Balkan Trilogy. He runs a medical-philosophy-anthropology cinema club in Paris.

[Verena Paravel puffs a vape cloud into the webcam.]

LCT: You just blew smoke in his face.

VP: Sorry.

LCT: Anyway, [Crémieux]’s very interested in bringing non-medical perspectives. Unlike in the US, he gave us carte blanche to film anything in the [French] hospitals he was then director of.

VP: My memory of the project’s genesis is when I was reading The Boston Globe, which is very strange because I would never read The Boston Globe. There was a story about how, during medical training, you’re given a cadaver at the beginning of the semester. Then, you work on this cadaver during your whole semester: doing dissection, learning anatomy, learning surgery. One student was given a cadaver at the beginning of the year and, when she unveiled the face, it was her aunt. She fainted and everything. I remember being horrified by the story and, at the same time, with my weird humor, I found it hilarious. I told Lucien, “Can you imagine the violence of unveiling and seeing it’s your family member who’d given their body to science?” We looked at each other and started to think about what it means to give your body to science and what’s being done with your body. Harvard is a place with so many cadavers because of the prestige. People in this country have the ability to say not only “I’m going to give my body to science,” but also specify where you want your body to go. Harvard has a ridiculous amount of bodies, whereas the rest of medical schools have a serious lack of bodies to train students. That was the beginning of our discussion, and we both said at the exact same time: “We should make a film about that.”

LCT: There’s this expression, “If you can’t get into Harvard when you’re alive, you can get in when you’re dead.” But you don’t know that they can also sell your body to other medical schools.

VP: That was the entrance into the hospital world. Then, we soon realized [filming] in America was too complicated because of the culture of suing for no reason, for every reason, and every opportunity. François Crémieux was the key: the miraculous magic formula to get into the hospital. Once you get in there, it’s an immense resource of ideas because the hospital itself is a society in miniature. It’s a microcosm where you feel what’s going on in society: the violence, the conflicts, religious belief, social-cultural behavior. Everything is there because the whole world is coming to the hospital without any filter. Everybody is there. It’s not that we are equal in front of disease, but we all end up in hospitals at some point. We all die. We all have a body that is more or less made of the same organs. That’s an amazing vantage point.

LCT: Until working in the French public hospitals, the original conceptual idea we had is indicated by the title. De Humani Corporis Fabrica, that’s the title of the founding tome of Western anatomy by a Flemish physician named Andreas Vesalius. There were seven books in that work. His sense of anatomy was very revolutionary but it’s now completely outdated. The idea is that we’d make a film with seven parts, films, or movements. Each would use a different, contemporary cutting-edge medical scoping technology that’s come into being the last 10-15 years. Each would be filmed only by that imaging device in seven different countries. The idea was a much more global approach to the ways medical imagery allows us to perceive the body in a way that had never been possible before in history. But also, in the ways doctors themselves perceive their bodies when they’re objectifying them, when they’re subjectifiying them, when they’re mutilating them, when they’re trying to heal them. But it’s a kind of vision that the rest of the world, aside from these surgeons, have no access to. The idea was to open up that vision to humanity at large.

When we got to Paris, we let go of the idea of having seven different countries, seven different surgical inventions, seven different scoping technologies because it was absurdly unprecedented to be afforded carte blanche. To have complete, unrestricted access was such an opportunity that we didn’t want to be constrained by the conceptual framework we initially had.

I’m curious about the approach you took to shooting the surgeries. Did your logistical setup of the camera and its apparatus vary dramatically from operation-to-operation or was it consistent throughout?

LCT: The original idea was: we wouldn’t film ourselves. We’d only record sound and all the imagery in the film would come from the medical cameras: laparoscopic and celioscopic cameras that were inside the bodies which the doctors were looking at. So that footage would be synced up with the sound mostly outside the body or on the bodies with contact microphones. We’re both very impetuous and we’re both very ocular centric creatures. So quite soon, in order to allow ourselves to focus, we also started filming outside the body. Initially, we used a conventional camera. But the imagery that gave us wasn’t very exciting and looked like things we’d seen before. Then we experimented and, with an amazing engineer in Zurich, fabricated a lipstick camera: a camera that, as closely as possible, resembles the same optics and aesthetics as the camera the doctors use. That camera was breaking down the whole time and we had to find a way to touch the lens without it burning our hands. But it basically stayed the same throughout.

Of course, the film is nothing. It’s two hours or something out of 350 hours. Each time we filmed a surgical procedure, and we filmed hundreds of them, the kind of imagery that the doctors themselves were using changes according to the operation they were performing, according to the hospital, according to their resources, etc.

When I saw the movie with an audience last September, I was struck by very audible exclamations from other people in the theater. Was that visceral, almost spectacle-like reception something you anticipated?

VP: We never really have an audience in mind. We were just worried about being extremely precise. We were expecting the audience to be maybe a bit touched or overwhelmed at some points. I think we knew somehow it’s a film that would be lived and experienced very subjectively. What I’m saying is super banal because it’s the case for every film. But in this case, it’s a little different because, as we said earlier, everybody has a body and everyone has a very particular relationship with their body. It’s not the same if somebody’s had a prostatectomy. Or if somebody’s had breast cancer. Or somebody had a parent who died or who had dementia… They will experience the film completely differently. We knew this was something we could not control. When you write a book, you cannot control how the book is going to be read. This is the case with every film you make. And this one in particular, we knew that. We did try to be careful with that because there are many things we didn’t put into the film because we thought maybe it was just too hard.

LCT: We had to censor ourselves a lot. It doesn’t seem like it when you see the film because it’s so overwhelming for many people. But there was so much we took out even though it was extremely beautiful and incredibly moving or displayed an ethic of care we thought was really important. It would just be unwatchable for most viewers. The body is super weird because it’s the thing we’re closest to in our lives. Your body is the only thing in the world that you yourself experience from the inside as well as the outside. It is the most permanent and present thing in our lives. And yet it is shrouded in taboo, with anxiety and alienation. Despite its centrality in our lives — all we do is stare at each other’s bodies and inspect our own — we have difficulties transgressing membrane and skin and looking inside the body.

We weren’t naïve in thinking that wouldn’t generate anxiety, but we thought it’s important not to turn away our gaze but to engage with the most important subject in our lives: bodies. We spend our whole lives pretending we don’t know we’re going to die. It’s the only thing we know. And we just repress that knowledge as much as we can. By visualizing the body, we see our fragility, our resilience. And of course, its fragility is going to be deeply anxiety-inducing.

VP: Or the contrary. Yesterday, Alice Diop was visiting our class. She saw the film, and she said she was so scared. We had the film projected for her, and she was like, “No stay with me! Stay with me!” At some point, I needed to leave, and when I came back, she was completely transfixed. When the film ended, she said “I think it healed me.” For her, it was completely therapeutic. She’s not afraid anymore.

For me, the movie got me to dissect the aversion I felt to some of the images of the inside of the body and to confront what it means to look at flesh and feel repulsion to your own biology. Which was a really unique encounter. I was also wondering if any of the patients saw the footage of their own operations?

LCT: Thing is, we filmed hundreds of patients and hundreds of medical personnel of different stripes. There were all these screenings in Paris in December and January, like 20 or 30, and they were invited to many of them. So, we were present for some of those but not all. The person who had the first operation in the film — the brain surgery for hydrocephalus [treated with] an endoscopic third ventriculostomy — studied his medical procedure at length in the final cut. That’s also true for some others. But there’s no way of knowing what percentage of doctors or patients have seen the film. There were some doctors and medical staff who came and saw rough cuts towards the end; we wanted to make sure they found it accurate and not a misrepresentation. But most people only saw the final film.

What’s the division of labor between the two of you? Are there specific roles that you individually assume?

LCT: One of us would hold the lipstick camera and the other would hold the sound. In past films, like Caniba or Leviathan, there was no division of labor. With Leviathan, the filming conditions were difficult so one of us would have to hold onto the other to make sure they didn’t fall overboard. But even in that case, whoever was the least exhausted would hold the camera. But that also had sound. In this case, we added a microphone to the camera, so we’d alternate without rhyme or reason. It was also exhausting; we’d get up and bike to the hospital an hour/hour-and-a-half every morning at 5 AM. Then we’d get back at midnight. Whoever was least exhausted would usually hold the camera and the other one would do the sound.

Do you often find your two approaches and ideas are simpatico? Or do you find yourselves disagreeing about what the movie should be?

LCT: There’s almost invariably antipatico. They’re not at all sympathetic. We fight like cats and dogs.

VP: C’est complètement faux [translation: That’s completely wrong].

LCT: She’s already disagreeing with me. At the end of a day, one of us, especially during editing but even during filming, will feel one way and the other will feel the other. Then, when we meet again in the editing studio the following morning, I will have changed position and come to her point of view. And she will have come to mine. Then we’re like “fuck” because each of us thinks the opposite. So it’s a constant—sorry, it’s a big, stupid word—dialectic going back and forth between the two of us. We never come to any particular consensus. Every spectator makes up something different than every other spectator according to individuality, nationality, gender, race, class position: multiple different variables that are uncontrollable. Even us, we never have a singular intellectual perspective; the film still means different things to us. And what it means to each of us changes through time. We’re still learning about the film by interacting with audiences.

VP: I agree… I almost agree, actually. You’re completely right about the fighting or dialectical process. Can you imagine agreeing with yourself and being alone? Since we edit [ourselves], it’s two brains rather than one. It’s like having a conversation. Somehow, we need the other to trust what we’re doing. But also, especially when we look at our footage, there is a common sensibility that is sometimes mind-blowing. Very often we’re having the same reaction at the same half-second, vibrating in front of the same images. There is a shared sensibility that is extremely important in our work and collaboration.

LCT: Even if I don’t vibrate as much as you.

You talked about how Benjamin’s metaphor of the Optical Unconscious was a starting point, and you talked about how you’ve never fully bought into it. I’m wondering how the process of making the movie and thinking back on making it have changed your understanding of Benjamin’s metaphor?

LCT: It’s complicated… it would take ten pages. Even in ten years when [the movie] will be in the past, but especially now when it’s been out for only a couple months in France or almost a year in festivals. Though we haven’t been to many festivals because it’s absurd post-COVID in the climate crisis to travel to all these festivals. But it’s not as if now we’ve reached a certain particular understanding of either Benjamin or the body. When we started filming in Paris, not only did the seven-part structure go out the window but so did the interrogation of that metaphor, partially. Our understanding of the body and medicine was, and is, in constant flux.

I still don’t think [Benjamin’s] metaphor holds that much water. He’s a terribly authoritarian writer who’s completely à la mode in American universities. To think there’s an optical unconscious equivalent to the instinctive/psychic unconscious that Freud was exploring… I don’t think that holds up. He thought painting could only represent the world from the outside; it was destined or doomed to have an exterior regard on the world, whereas film would blow the world asunder in the dynamite of a 16th of a second, as he called it. Then, in the detritus of what it captured: a new vision of the world. It was still very teleological and very technofilic and romanticized the camera’s vision. The camera’s vision is as flawed and partial as human vision. In many ways, it’s not a superhuman vision as Vertov thought; it’s less than human vision. It’s a constant struggle to work with these audio-visual technologies, to give us a new perspective on reality and to perceive the world in ways our own eyes don’t. Or to augment that apprehension we have of the world. It’s not easy, and it’s not as if there’s one methodology or technology you can pursue that would allow for that.

VP: Wow…

LCT: We should write on this at some point because, honestly, it’s a super interesting question.

VP: As I was listening to you, I said, “This is exactly telepathic. When you were talking I thought, ‘we always refuse to write, but why?’”

LCT: Because we can’t write. That’s why we use images and sound… You can write, but I can’t write.

VP: I cannot… you can.

LCT: I also think there’s a political imperative to look at the body, especially now. With COVID, it’s terrifying how little humanity seems to have learned from that pandemic. I was really optimistic during it that there’d be a radically different relationship to the environment, to the world, to the extra-human. But I do think we have been fragilized about our bodies, our mortality. Now is the time to contemplate our relationship to other species and to the natural world through the prism of our bodies. The hope is that people like Alice [Diop] who watch this film, which is very violent in many ways, will perceive an incredible kind of tenderness. Paradoxically, perhaps, they’re able to reconcile — as you were — with their bodies.

It’s not disgusting, it’s not gory. People often compare it with Cronenberg’s film [Crimes of the Future]. It’s the opposite of Cronenberg’s film. But I still think there’s this prohibition about looking at one’s body that has to be interrogated. And if we’re going to have a healthy relationship to the rest of the world, other species (animal, plant, and mineral), that has to start with a capacity for reinterrogating our own relationship to our bodies.

VP: I was talking about the hospital as a microcosm of society, but the body itself is. It’s a place of multiple cohabitation between viruses and bacteria. It’s also a place that cannot be sustainable if you want to push the metaphor of being alive. There’s no body that can survive without the care of other bodies.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 16.