‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’ Review: ‘Leviathan’ Filmmakers Go on a Wild Tour of the Human Body

Cannes: The marvels of modern medicine unveil the brutal reality of what it means to exist in a human body.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica
"De Humani Corporis Fabrica"

A metal pincer travels through a dark red tunnel tearing at a foggy white membrane, reminiscent of a futuristic space vehicle burrowing through the bowels of a stylishly realized alien planet. In reality, this is inner space not outer, with minute cameras within the human body bridging the gap between documentary and arthouse sensibility.

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

Composed out of 350 hours of footage across 30 different hospital units, “Leviathan” boundary-pushers Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor take us inside the human body via the cameras that accompany surgical tools — through blood vessels, down intestines, along spinal columns, and even through the skull of a waking man and into the soft grey matter of his pullulating brain.

Perhaps the most striking footage of all parallels one of the most famous moments in art cinema — in Salvador Dali’s 1929 “Un Chien Andalou,” where a woman’s eye is sliced open in a dreamlike sequence. But in “De Humani Corporis Fabrica,” the moment isn’t fleeting or simulated. The eye is taped wide open with wide dilated pupils, the lens slowly cut open and painstakingly repaired. Where Dali’s slice was a momentary flinch, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor’s scene is a hypnotic experience, and watching the images is more intense than grotesque. But even with the technological marvels and precise surgical skill, there is still a sense of meat being butchered. The camera doesn’t flinch at gelatinous substances tethered to flesh, which slowly decays around it, all tentatively kept alive by little vessels pumped by a muscular mass that could stop at any moment. The film’s existential fascination with anatomy has classic roots. Leonardo Da Vinci to Michaelangelo employed grave robbers so they could similarly cut open the human body and discover its secrets.

That view of the human body, beneath smiles, skin and hair, is a philosophically terrifying prospect, that all human accomplishment, emotion, and endeavor is a product of such ignoble fleshy puppetry. But the demystification of the machine that contains the ghost makes the feats of both the surgeons and the filmmakers feel all the more transcendent. For all the brutality of seeing dozens of screws glowing bright in an X-ray of a torso, it is just as striking that a spine can be rebuilt one block at a time, that debilitating illnesses and injuries can be repaired so routinely.

Many of the surgeries thrillingly operate as mini-mysteries; given almost no context, it’s up to the viewer to gauge what is being operated on and why. Familiar organs and textures are seen, hinting at whether we are in a heart chamber or a bowel. At other times it is obvious what is happening as sharp objects are being driven into skulls and penises, with moments that border on torture-porn imagery. The film also plays into the innate suspense around surgeries that have life or death outcomes. Unlike what we normally see in medical dramas with beeping machines, jolts from defibrillators and glamorous surgeons screaming that they “won’t lose another one!” we instead see the near scrapes with death from inside the body. A pocket in an organ fills with blood like a sinking ship, a disconnected human voice mutters that “this is bad” but stitches are calmly made, membranes are repaired and a person gets to wake up and live another day.

Just as the human body is broken down into systems, organs and causes & 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 observant detachment. There is also an undiagnosed institutional sickness that permeates the corridors, wards and operating theatres. The doctors blame the nurses, the nurses blame the porters but all can agree that they are overworked and their compassion is finite. The employees of the hospital talk about their work in matter-of-fact, almost bored, terms. When spelling out unspeakable tragedies such as a 20-year-old with terminal cancer, they do so not because it is unusual but rather because it is mundane, that part of their work is being numb and accepting these human tragedies as everyday occurrences. The filmmakers make the hospital all the more surreal by uncovering the rituals they undertake to cope. The film ends with a dreamlike journey into the hospital worker’s social space, covered in obscene murals where a strict code of conduct means no medical talk exists, even if some of the attendees listening to ’80s pop are still in surgical scrubs and masks.

Outside of surgery, there are also two old women that the film returns to, taking small constitutional walks along the corridors to speed up their recoveries. But the horror of the hospital is the sense of them only postponing the inevitable. In one of the film’s most upsetting moments, it pans from these two walking women to another woman in a bed, perhaps only a few years older. She has lost the remaining faculties and lies in bed crying out in barely human squawks to no one in particular. It’s terrifying to see humanity outwardly stripped away in such a naked manner. A parallel soon follows with a baby being born by emergency cesarean section. The baby, smeared in vernix and with its eyes determinedly closed, radiates bewitching purity but in this spaces of broken organs and failing bodies it’s hard to not feel terrified for the life ahead of it, particularly when its cries begin to sound uncannily like the woman spending her final days alone in bed. As much as the new technology that prolongs our lives, and makes a film like ‘De Humani Dorpus Fabrica’ possible exists, there is a devastating truth about the vulnerability of the flesh that lingers.

Grade: A-

‘De Humani Dorpus Fabrica’ premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival as part of Director’s Fortnight.

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