Step aside, David Cronenberg, there’s a new master of body horror in town. Or rather, masters, in the case of co-directors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Leviathan, Caniba), whose latest ethnographic opus takes us not only inside the world of invasive medical procedures as practiced in various hospitals around Paris, but about as far inside the human body as a feature-length documentary has ever gone.

To say that De Humani Corporis Fabrica is not for the fainthearted is an understatement, because unlike in Cronenberg’s movies, the ample gore on display is very much the real thing — so much so that it can be painful to watch. And yet, for viewers who resist the temptation to flee for the nearest exit, this fascinating and probing look at modern surgery is a memorable experience, making us ponder our own humanity as we watch humans reduced to pure flesh-and-blood organisms.

De Humani Corporis Fabrica

The Bottom Line

A school of flesh well worth attending.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Directors: Véréna Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor


1 hour 55 minutes

For more than a decade, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, members of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, which was co-founded by the latter, have used immersive cinematic techniques to explore different facets of our existence, getting as close to their subjects as physically, and metaphysically, possible. In Leviathan, the first film they made together and the one that put them on the map, they employed GoPro cameras to plunge deep into the murky waters of a Maine fishing expedition. Other works, such as Caniba, about the cannibal Issei Sagawa, or somniloquies, about the recorded dreams of songwriter Dion McGregor, featured roving close-ups of bodies and faces that transformed them into surreal, sometimes grotesque figures onscreen.

These earlier films seem like natural forerunners to De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which takes things a step further by piercing the very skin itself, using a range of microscope cameras, endoscopic imagery, X-rays, ultrasound probes and other instruments to reveal the inside of the body in harrowing detail. Not since Joe Dante’s Innerspace have we sailed through muscle and fatty tissue, intestinal tracts, arteries and major organs with such ease. We don’t always know what we’re looking at — Is it an esophagus? No, it’s a penis! — but we’re riveted by what we’re seeing, which can be both hard to stomach and transfixingly beautiful in the way that an abstract expressionist canvas can be, filled with multitudes of colors, shapes, shadows and light.

Our only guidance to the procedures is aural: the voices of the French surgeons, doctors and nurses who conduct them, narrating the action in a mix of nonchalant banter, technical jargon and, in the case of prostate surgery that goes hilariously out of control, a slew of expletives. No one is interviewed and nobody talks to the camera; this is a fly-on-the-wall approach, except that the fly sometimes enters the body through crevices and incisions, magnifying organs and flesh hundreds of times during operations in which everyday medical miracles take place before our eyes.

The filmmakers zoom out as well to give us a bigger picture, caught in fragments, of a public health system whose professionals are straining under the weight of too many patients and not enough funding and time. Shot in a network of Paris hospitals and clinics, De Humani Corporis Fabrica reveals the high levels of expertise and sangfroid of France’s well-trained medical community, and the problems, including budget cuts and downsizing, that they face in giving proper care to the sick and elderly.

Among the many medical scenes depicted, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor made sure to include those revealing human life from the very start until after the end. There’s an explicit cesarean-section birth scene that will have some audience members reaching for their Dramamine, and a scene in a morgue showing nurses clothing dead bodies as a Caribbean beat plays on the radio. In both instances, the film’s approach is twofold: On one hand it all seems very routine, which is how things tend to be for people who handle newborns and corpses on a daily basis; on the other, we’re staring life and death straight in the face, which can leave one feeling tremendously vulnerable and yet aesthetically satisfied.

The paradox of De Humani Corporis Fabrica, which is named after the groundbreaking 16th century anatomy books written by the Dutch physician Andreas Vesalius, is that the further we travel inside the body, the more it seems like anything but the body we know. This is particularly well illustrated in a sequence where two young doctors dissect a biopsied breast which, with its lines of charred flesh, resembles a side of barbecued pit beef. In the next scene, an oncologist studies the progression of a patient’s breast cancer under a microscope, and the images, magnified to a cellular level, look like a collection of colorful, gorgeously rendered paintings by Joan Miró.

Between the operations, the directors keep cutting back to a psychiatric ward filled with raving older patients, showing how the breakdown of our nervous system — first seen in an excruciating brain surgery sequence — manifests itself on the outside. These more macro depictions of the body at work, or, rather, failing to work properly, are coupled with scenes of security staff and their guard dogs patrolling dimly lit underground corridors. At some point, the graffiti-filled bowels of the hospital and the bowels of a patient undergoing an endoscopy begin to look like one and the same thing.

Therein lies the power of Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s cinema, which infuses slices of life — or, in this case, slices of flesh — with multiple meanings and associations. Even a seemingly random moment captured at the end of the film, when the doctors and nurses let go during a party, takes on a new dimension when the DJ throws on New Order’s “Blue Monday” and the opening lyrics kick in: “How does it feel/When you treat me like you do/And you’ve laid your hands upon me.” It’s a question that this penetrating and profound documentary answers in more ways than one.

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