De Humani Corporis Fabrica

From outside a hospital medical lab we hear two doctors discuss a patient with a likely fatal combination of conditions which one of them predicts will find her brain dead within 24 hours.  She happens to be in room number 5, which they believe is cursed as patients admitted to it seem to have the worst medical results.  They are compassionate yet resigned to the vulnerabilities of the human body about to be explored in uniquely cinematic terms by director/cinematographer/sound recording/editors Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (2013’s “Leviathan”) of Harvard University’s experimental Sensory Ethnography Laboratory in “De Humani Corporis Fabrica.”

Laura's Review: B+

That would be ‘on the manufacture of the human body’ for non-Latin speakers and Paravel and Castaing-Taylor dive into the action with what looks like a literal interpretation of their title, a man whose head has been ‘sheeted off’ as a surgeon drills screws into the top of his skull while asking the patient how it all feels.  After making us cringe with this invasion into the human brain, the filmmakers move to a geriatric ward where three women, two apparently suffering from dementia, travel the hallways, a picture of a different type of brain fragility.

They then flip the script on new medical procedures which use miniature cameras to direct surgeons by directing those explorations with synced sound to create their own cinema, beginning with imagery that most would be familiar with, that of inside the colon.  Later we’ll be mystified as to just what we are looking at until we are horrified by the revelation of the camera’s exit.  By the time they get around to cornea surgery, those who’ve seen Phil Tippett’s “Mad God” or even “A Clockwork Orange” may have feelings of déjà vu.

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor originally began this project in Boston, but ran into too many permission issues.  When they met the director of five French hospitals, they were encouraged to shoot there and were met with such enthusiasm, each medical area would suggest another.  Slides of post chemotherapy cells look like modern art.  We take a trip to a morgue where a body is redressed in the clothing he apparently arrived in.   Utilizing the ceiling camera installed above operating tables, we witness intense spinal surgery, doctors drilling metalwork into bones, one occasionally sluicing the area with water which is then suctioned out.  The scene abolishes any idea of delicacy in operating rooms, as does one illustrating a C-section.  That a scalpel may be dropped on the floor and then used because it is the only available option not only adds to this impression, but is one example of some indirect political commentary.

These filmmakers let their material stand without contextualizing, so it wasn’t until I read their press notes interview that I understood why they include several shots of security guards traveling the subterranean halls of these hospitals, the constant movement of staff making these hallways like the facility’s living network (interestingly, it seems all kinds of things go on in French hospital basements whose hallways are covered in graffiti).  Bizarre wall paintings are not just restricted to the basement, however, as the film ends with a celebratory going away party featuring some spot-on DJ’ing (‘I Will Survive,’ ‘Blue Monday’) and strobing silhouettes.  As the party continues, the filmmakers’ camera slowly circles the room’s ceiling painted with its amusingly pornographic mural intertwining life, death, sex and religion, the sounds of bacchanalia in the background.  “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” is like cinematic punk rock Da Vinci.

Robin's Review: B+

The title is a mouthful but it does have meaning and origin - De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem. This translates to “On the fabric of the human body in seven parts” and was the first formal study, by Andreas Vesaius published in 1543, of human anatomy since that of the Roman Greek physician and surgeon Galen of Pergamon in the second century A.D.

If you are familiar with the co-directors’ earlier film, “Leviathan (2012),” then you know their filmmaking style – which borrows from uber-documentarian Frederick Weismen’s own cinema verite way of narration (there is none). With the 2012 documentary, we saw endless close-ups of parts of a fishing boat and various parts of the fish they catch. I found it tedious and boring.
The co-helmers’ non-narrative camera technique brings us up close and personal to many various operations using laparoscopic cameras. Aside from the background noises of a bustling hospital operating room, we know nothing about which operation is for what, but, here, that is the fascinating draw of “De Humani,,,” as I watch and try to figure out which operation is which.

While the microscopic surgery, with the tiny camera traversing the inner workings of our bodies, is keep-you-guessing-what-is-going-on fascinating, there are other areas of the French health care system given light, too. The (regular) camera follows two sisters, residents in one elder care facility. We eavesdrop, via audio, on the doctors and nurses talking about their patients, their workload and lack of necessary equipment. The camera follows security guards checking out the bowels of a hospital, making sure there are no intruders. There is a lot more going on.

The examination of different countries’ health care systems often show the major differences in those system, as in Michael Moore’s “Sicko (2007),” contrasting the American health care system with others, like Cuba. Now, post COVID-19 disaster, the playing field has been leveled and, here, we learn that the problems in a health care system – staff shortages, lack of needed equipment, overcrowding – are universal.

Keep in mind, we are talking the nuts and bolts of a hospital system, so graphic is the rule, rather than the exception. Expect to see an autopsy, cancerous tissue, a caesarean birth, a cornea transplant, a graphic spine operation and much more. Granted, this is aimed at the film buff, not the folks who love blockbusters and copious CGI, It kept me interested, even enthralled, for its near two hour run time. That is a good thing for me.

Grasshopper Film opened “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” in select theaters on 4/14/23.  Click here for play dates.