Taking its title from the landmark sixteenth-century book on human anatomy, De Humani Corporis Fabrica is the fourth feature from Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the director of the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, and French anthropologist, artist, and filmmaker Véréna Paravel. Their first feature, Leviathan (2012), an engulfing and immersive experience shot primarily on fishing boats with bobbing GoPro cameras two hundred miles off the northeastern coastline, “still stands as arguably the single most impactful advancement in film language this century,” wrote Blake Williams in this summer’s issue of Cinema Scope.
Shot over the course of five years and whittled down to two hours from 350 hours of footage, De Humani Corporis Fabrica probes the inner workings of the human body with “lipstick cameras,” which Castaing-Taylor, talking to Nicolas Rapold at Filmmaker, describes as a “very specialized and kind of an anachronistic technology.” Ceiling, or “scialytic,” cameras mounted above operating tables offer establishing shots, and, with their own handheld cameras and sound equipment, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor explore hallways, a geriatric ward, and the rumbling machinery at the heart of hospital buildings that keeps the air flowing and the lights on.
“Filmed so intimately as to be rendered abstract, the images—in a manner reminiscent of both Leviathan and the more recent somniloquies and Caniba (both 2017)—unfold for large portions of the film in disorienting displays of texture and color,” writes Jordan Cronk in the Notebook. At the top of his interview with the filmmakers for Reverse Shot, Leonardo Goi calls De Humani Corporis Fabrica “at once repugnant and entrancing, [as] it turns the body into the ultimate frontier, an alien landscape teeming with surreal visions, less a decaying vessel than an undiscovered planet.”
Paravel and Castaing-Taylor started working on the project in Boston, but they soon found that the legal obstacles in lawsuit-happy America were insurmountable. Fortunately, they met François Crémieux, who invited them to come and work in the cluster of public hospitals he oversees in and around Paris. A quick sidenote: Crémieux is a cinephile—one of us—who was working as a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, when Chris Marker was shooting his Balkan Trilogy. Crémieux features prominently in the second film, Peacekeeper (1995). He still runs Ciné-club Barberousse, a monthly series of films that usually have one thing or another to do with the medical profession.
Fabrica has reminded more than a few reviewers of The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, Stan Brakhage’s graphic 1971 study of autopsies, but also of Frederick Wiseman’s complex portraits of institutions that fan out and deepen without resorting to talking-head interviews or voice-over narration. As David Jenkins points out in Little White Lies,Fabrica’s “opening sequence lays out the political framework for the project at large, as an overworked nurse complains to a colleague about never-ending shifts, lack of resources, dwindling support, and the desperate need for extra hands on deck. She claims that the trinkets and prizes given out in recognition of duty from government health bodies acts as a cover-up for the fact that this already-precarious system is on the verge of crumbling.”
A hospital “works as a body, too,” Paravel tells Jordan Cronk. The building “has its own arteries that patients go through and where doctors walk, and a kind of circulatory system made of those sci-fi-looking tubes that transport organs, biopsies, and blood tests around the hospital. So at some point it made sense to include other aspects of the hospital—there are so many inhabitants in and around hospitals that contribute to this movement: homeless people, drug dealers, prostitutes, security guards, people just passing through.”
But it’s the lipstick camera footage that prompted a few walkouts when Fabrica premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. Fabrica “offers an anthology of brutally invasive medical procedures,” writes Keith Watson at Slant, “from an eyeball being sliced during a lens transplant, to an urethra being jackhammered by a drill that’s positioned, we’re told, to the ‘Kalashnikov setting.’ If that sounds like a stomach-churning proposition, make no mistake, the film is often pretty-tough sledding, particularly for those of us with an aversion to the sanguinary goop of internal organs.”
Fabrica eventually leads to what Leonardo Goi describes as “an arresting scene where the camera twirls inside what looks like a cellar-bar, the walls covered in murals illustrating doctors, skeletons, and priapic figures drinking and dancing together, an orgiastic fresco where death and sex collide.” The sequence was shot in one of the many similarly decorated doctors’ dining rooms in French hospitals built before the Second World War. “It’s sex, death, and spirituality, all combined, all colliding,” says Castaing-Taylor.