TIFF 2022: De humani corporis fabrica, by David Bax
First off, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel‘s De humani corporis fabrica is easily one of the best documentaries of the year. But before you scramble to be first in line for opening day, please be warned that it is chock full of intense close-ups of actual surgery, including on the most sensitive parts of the human body, such as the eyeball. It’s truly squirm-inducing but, hey, maybe that’s your thing. In that sense, it’s also gotta be high in the running for most metal movie of the year too.
Shot in a handful of Parisian hospitals, De humani corporis fabrica confronts the necessary fact of invasive surgery while stripping away the pathos of the standard medical drama. The doctors and other workers are not stiff-lipped heroes; in fact, they’re rarely a physical presence on screen at all. Instead, they are disembodied voices treating life-saving and gory procedures as the daily tasks they are in such a setting. At times, the film approaches something like an alien workplace sitcom, like when we hear doctors and technicians gripe–as employees in any office would–about which members of the staff aren’t pulling their weight lately, all while we watching a tube being inserted into an unconscious man’s penis.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel shot plenty of footage for De humani corporis fabrica but by far the most engrossing stuff is borrowed from actual surgical cameras, exploring the innards of human bodies and giving doctors a close-up view of what their hands and tools are doing within all of the viscera. These are not cameras intended to produce footage displayed at the scale of a theatrical exhibition and the effect of doing so is utterly shocking.
De humani corporis fabrica thus recalls another recent documentary, Theo Anthony‘s All Light, Everywhere. That film was assembled largely from surveillance cameras, not medical ones, but both make us think about how photography has been adapted into non-artistic ways of aiding (or hindering) the functions of society simply by adapting them back, by making cinema out of utilitarian cameras. Movies have always been made to be looked at but movies such as these urge us to take one step back in the equation and ponder the act of looking itself.
Perhaps the most beautifully disorienting shot in the film, though, comes right at the end and isn’t taken from surgical cameras at all. In one of the closest scenes we get to seeing the hospital workers existing as themselves and not as an appendage of the facility, we are present at an employee celebration where the DJ spins New Order’s “Blue Monday” at a deafening level. Even then, however, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel turn their attention away from the people and toward more explicit images of the human body, this time in the form of a large, pornographic mural. It’s a sequence so sublimely queasy yet undeniably transfixing that Gaspar Noé would likely approve.