Documentary Review: The Human Body, often inside out, “De humani corporis fabrica”

“De humani corporis fabrica” is a cinematic med school anatomy quiz, one which doesn’t necessarily provide direct answers to what it is we see being probed, sliced, removed, straightened or examined under a microscope. We can guess. Usually.

If the photos above didn’t scare you off, here’s written warning. This is not for the squeamish.

The latest movie from the filmmakers behind the fishing documentary “Leviathan” and the far more unsettling “Caniba” — which examines what Timothee Chalamet’s last movie was about, the subject of Chalamet’s former co-star Armie Hammer’s kinkiest desires — takes its title from a 16th century collection of anatomy books. Their Latin title translates to “On the Fabric of the Living Body” in English.

That’s pretty much what this film is — well, much of the time — human anatomy, the working and sometimes defective parts of the body, seen in living color as they’re cut and corrected.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel filmed in 11 hospitals of Paris — in operating rooms, delivery rooms, looking at X-rays and cat scans and using endoscopes and every “scope” in current use in surgeries and examinations to take us into the intestines, lungs, throats, eyes and urinary tracts and wombs of assorted patients. The only dialogue is what’s overheard as nurses prep or dress anesthetized patients or doctors as they remark on what they’re seeing, what’s going wrong and bitch about workloads as they remove another prostate or show us one of the more graphic Caesarian section births ever filmed.

If you’re not cringing at the hammering and chiseling, drilling and screwing it takes to straighten a young man’s scoliosis, you’re made of sterner stuff than me. The eyeball poking and probing operation is but a warmup to the spinal surgery.

Traditional pre-natal sonograms are seen, like other sequences of “De humani,” in a grainy, expressionistic blur. Then we’re treated to the state-of-the-art color imagery of a scoped- peek at the near-birth baby’s development.

Every now and then, the filmmakers wander into rooms where patients are being handled, and managed. A woman’s plaintive cries point to madness, and a confused man endlessly repeats this or that phrase (in French) insisting that he’s not going back to his room.

And a couple of times we follow what look like a hospital’s security staff as they wade into the bowels of the institution, the metal plumbing-lined tunnels used for storage and providing the lifeblood of the ORs, ERs and pediatric wards above, where human plumbing is plumbed and altered by the healers who labor there.

“This prostate is HUGE!” Again, in French with English subtitles.

The film is maddeningly random and almost-pointlessly opaque at times, forcing the viewer to guess what they’re operating on, and why. Random translated words (“cortical chimney,” “Retzius”) point us in the right direction before actual answers slip in. Cross-section examination of an umbilical cord as it is sliced up and studied, a placenta is gone over or a breast cancer tumor’s cells are viewed in slice-slide formdon’t don’t require further explanation.

Castain-Taylor and Paravel are selective about who they actually show on camera, and delay showing any clear, focused doctor or nurse for most of the early scenes. They dip back into blurry, impressionistic and sometimes underlit (or unlit) scenes illustrating the muted and muffled conversations, rants and diagnoses we half overhear.

As one gropes for footing or simple answers, it’s tempting to reference American cinema verite documentaries on medicine, mental patients and the like and wonder if it isn’t just the surgery that’s “invasive” here.

“De humani” is meant to be immersive, and it occasionally is — and demystifying, which it occasionally achieves. But by the long, going-away (Retirement? Can’t tell.) party sequence at the end, with blurred dancing and music and close-ups of a more playful anatomical mural decorating wherever the hell these staffers are, much of what is “magic” about this flesh-and-blood-and-organs meditation has evaporated.

The surgeries shown here, organs in their place in the crowded human body, functioning or failing, is indeed eye-opening. But the film’s structure is, as an ancient Roman critic would have put it, inportunum et inordinatum.

Rating: unrated, graphic images of surgery, sexual organs included

Credits: Scripted and directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. A Grasshopper Film release.

Running time: 1:58


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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