‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’ review

Cannes: The wonders of modern medicine reveal the brutal reality of what it means to exist in a human body.


A pair of metal tongs slides through a crimson tunnel, tearing at a foggy white membrane reminiscent of a futuristic spacecraft burrowing through the bowels of a stylishly rendered alien planet. In reality, this is an interior space, not an exterior, with tiny cameras in the human body bridging the gap between documentary and art house sensibilities.

The moving image has always existed in parallel in art and science. 2001: A Space Odyssey told of humanity’s potential throughout the solar system, and a year later, cutting-edge technology captured Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. But, as a doctor reminds us in De Humani Corporis Fabrica, art has its limits and “the challenge is not to foresee the future, but to make it possible”. For over a century, filmmakers have experimented with narrative structures, computer-generated imagery, and the frontiers of imagination to map distant planets and tunnel through organs, giving us new understandings of our anatomy, and facilitating surgical procedures with godlike abilities.

Composed of 350 hours of footage from 30 different hospital units, “Leviathan” frontier crossers Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor lead us through the cameras that accompany surgical instruments into the human body – through blood vessels, down the intestines, along the spine, and even through an awake man’s skull and into the soft gray matter of his drawing brain.

Perhaps the most powerful footage of all time corresponds to one of the most famous moments in art cinema – in Salvador Dali’s 1929 Un Chien Andalou, where a woman’s eye is cut open in a dreamlike sequence. But in De Humani Corporis Fabrica the moment is not fleeting or simulated. The eye is taped shut with the pupils wide open, the lens slowly cut open and carefully repaired. Where Dali’s cut was a brief twitch, the Paravel and Castaing-Taylor scene is a hypnotic experience, and viewing the images is intense rather than grotesque. But even with the technological marvels and precise surgical skill, there is still a feeling that meat is being slaughtered. The camera doesn’t flinch at the gelatinous substances bound to flesh slowly disintegrating around them, all tentatively kept alive by small vessels pumped by a mass of muscle that could stop at any moment. Film’s existential fascination with anatomy has classical roots. From Leonardo da Vinci to Michaelangelo, grave robbers were employed so that they could similarly dissect the human body and discover its mysteries.

This glimpse of the human body, beneath smile, skin, and hair, is a philosophically chilling prospect that all human achievement, emotion, and aspiration are a product of such base, fleshy puppetry. But the demystification of the machine that contains the mind makes the achievements of both the surgeons and the filmmakers seem all the more transcendent. For all the brutality of seeing dozens of screws glowing brightly on an X-ray of a torso, it is just as amazing that a spine can be rebuilt block by block, that debilitating illnesses and injuries can be routinely repaired.

Many of the operations work as mini-mysteries in exciting ways; With almost no context given, it is up to the viewer to judge what is being operated on and why. Familiar organs and textures can be seen, suggesting whether we are in a chamber of the heart or an intestine. At other times, it’s obvious what happens when sharp objects are driven into skulls and penises, with moments that border on images of torture porn. The film also plays on the inherent tension surrounding life-or-death surgeries. Contrary to what we usually see in medical dramas with machines beeping, defibrillator bursts and glamorous surgeons yelling that “they’re not going to lose another one!” we instead see the near scratches of death from within the body . A pocket in an organ fills with blood like a sinking ship, an incoherent human voice murmurs that “this is bad,” but stitches are quietly made, membranes are repaired, and a person can wake up and live another day.

Just as the human body is broken down into systems, organs, and causes and effects, the hospitals in De Humani Dorpus Fabrica also exist as living organisms. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor shoot the nurses and doctors with the same attentive detachment. There is also an undiagnosed institutional disease that pervades the corridors, wards, and operating rooms. The doctors blame the nurses, the nurses blame the porters, but everyone agrees they are overworked and their compassion is limited. The hospital staff talk matter-of-factly, almost bored, about their work. When they spell unspeakable tragedies like a 20-year-old with terminal cancer, they don’t do it because it’s unusual, it’s because it’s mundane that part of their job is accepting these human tragedies as everyday occurrences. The filmmakers make the hospital all the more surreal by uncovering the rituals they undertake to navigate. The film ends with a dreamlike journey into the hospital staff’s social space, covered in obscene murals, where a strict code of conduct means there are no medical talks, though some of the participants, listening to ’80s pop, still have surgical Wear gowns and masks.

Outside of the surgery, there are also two old women who the film returns to, taking little constitutional walks along the corridors to speed up their recovery. But the horror of the hospital is the sense that they are only delaying the inevitable. In one of the film’s most disturbing moments, the film pans from these two walking women to another woman in a bed who may be just a few years older. She has lost the remaining abilities and lies in bed screaming at no one in particular with barely human screeches. It is terrifying to see humanity being outwardly exposed in such a bare way. A parallel soon follows with a baby being born via emergency caesarean section. The baby, smudged with vernix and eyes shut in determination, exudes a beguiling purity, but in these rooms of broken organs and failing bodies it’s hard not to be afraid of the life ahead, especially when his screams begin, eerie as that To sound woman spends her last days alone in bed. As much as there is the new technology that extends our lives and makes a film like De Humani Dorpus Fabrica possible, there is a shattering truth about the vulnerability of the flesh that is left behind.

Grade: A-

De Humani Dorpus Fabrica premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival as part of Directors Fortnight.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/05/de-humani-corporis-fabrica-review-1234727449/ ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’ review

Chris Estrada

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