When watching a film, it is practically impossible not to start making countless connections with works that we find similar, in an unbridled mental tapestry (especially those who tend to be maniacally apophenic). The obvious reference point that is mentioned over and over again in texts about De Humani Corporis Fabrica, co-directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, is Near Death by Frederick Wiseman, a documentary that takes as its subject an intensive care unit. The hospital theme of this work is similar (exploring the daily life of a hospital, both from the side of the doctors and nurses, as well as from the patients), but its most striking aspects lie in the divergence of this point of reference.
1st divergence: physical distance
Wiseman is usually credited with being part of the Observational Cinema legacy, although he does not particularly appreciate or agree with this label. Observational Cinema (directly linked to Direct Cinema and Cinema Verité) refers to the documentary sub-genre characterised by the ‘fly on the wall’ approach, i.e. an objective separation in filming that ‘forbids’ the interaction of the filmmaker with the filmed subject. Where Wiseman diverges from this style is in his editing: while in shooting this approach is the norm, in editing, rather than seeing all moments and shots as equal, Wiseman intentionally establishes and creates a narrative out of these roughs.
In order to be able to follow these rules, certain accommodations have to be established in the technical process, independent of the filmmaker’s own stylisation. It is impossible to establish a strict line of possible objectivity on a social/conceptual level without the physical aspect of the realisation having to conform as well. Not only already on a prescriptive level, but also as a result, Wiseman’s visual language has to anchor itself to the concept of distance and the restriction of interaction.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica never set out to try to maintain any objectivity of the camera during the shoot, elevating it from the subjective to the intrusive. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s joint work usually runs on the axis of the sensorial, trying to achieve an almost psychedelic update of haptic cinema. This film is no exception to the rule, with this ambition being put at the service of an exploration of the human body. The film works in a tableaux structure, most of which are different medical procedures. The filmmakers appropriate technical innovations (medical cameras) in order to be able to film their intricacies in a more intimate (microscopic) way. From these methods, the film works on an axis between abstraction in terms of the magnification of interiority (something that allows the viewer to experience a singular aesthetic astonishment) and the concrete of what this new surreal vision really is (never letting itself fall into the cliff of pure abstraction, an effect achieved through the sound montage that establishes the omnipresence of the professionals behind the surgeries).
2nd divergence: emotional distance
Physical limitations are not the only ones that arise when adopting an observational technique in filming, a major difference in personal stance also has to be established. Wiseman’s technique restricts him from (almost) any intervention (his film Law and Order includes the famous example of a woman being strangled momentarily by the police, where his need for documentation prevented him from intervening), i.e. an assumption (prior to editing) of his presence as an author that is then demonstrated in the raw footage. Of course, his artistic sensibility and personality are impossible to cancel out (sometimes in the framing, sometimes in the choice of what to film), but what happens within the shots themselves is without influence.
In Near Death, Wiseman does not limit his focus on patients: the extremely long film largely concentrates on extremely complex and arduous clinical discussions in which the patients’ lives are at stake. Over the course of its (almost) six hours, all these (extremely) heavy discussions are taken to their exhaustion. Wiseman does not interact with these conversations, nor with their outcome. In De Humanis Corporis Fabrica, the filmmakers also do not interact with the doctors and nurses, meaning that nothing that happens is staged. However, there is (admittedly) no attempt to achieve objectivity. The choices of cases are very specific, and the way they are filmed externally (from the professionals’ side) is as invasive as the way they are filmed internally (from the patients’ side). The physical and the emotional are inseparable, so the very choice of camera position and distance adds a much greater a priori subjectivity compared to Wiseman (where most of this authorial subjectivity is created in post-production).
De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Lucien Castaing-Taylor/Véréna Paravel © Grasshopper Film and Gratitude Films
One final moment connects these two sides. Somewhere in the middle of the film, a patient in the mental illness ward notices the filmmakers and knocks on the window. The camera stops for a moment to see what’s going on. Towards the end of the film, the person behind the camera opens his door, letting him wander around the hospital when he normally couldn’t, until he is taken back to his room by the nurses. The film allows you this small freedom, even if it is brief, and follows you in a hand-held camera…
A completely sui generis film, so far mostly discussed through the lens of technological innovation (with almost all the discourse surrounding it focusing on the overwhelming sensory representations of the surgical process). However, the outer space is equally important. The filmmakers’ search for an ethic that remains transversal in the register of subjectivity, one of their greatest achievements, is as present within bodies as it is in the world around them. The connection between these two realities is gripping, permanent and inseparable.
Text written in the context of the partnership between IndieLisboa and the Cineblog of the Philosophy Institute of NOVA/FCSH.