Film Review by Khalid Ali, Film and Media Correspondent
‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’ (Lucien Giles Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel, France, 2022), showing on 14th and 16th of October 2022 at the London Film Festival.
The human body and soul have always been an enigma for creative artists to decode in their work. Lucien Giles Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel are a British and a French anthropologists and artists, based at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. The creative duo use film, video, and photography to engage audience in an immersive exploration of the subject of their documentary films. Lucien and Verena’s ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica’ owes its intriguing title to ‘De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem’, the 16th-century six-books series authored by Andreas Vesalius (1514–1564) the founder of modern human anatomy.
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The film makers document in painstaking detail several operations from hospitals around Paris: an eye surgery, a prostate removal, a caesarean section, and a neuro-surgical procedure are all graphically portrayed in captivating visuals watched through the end of a camera fixed to an endoscope or a camera attached to a wall inside the operating theatre. The viewers are not given any background information; we get to find out what we are watching from hearing background conversations of surgeons, anaesthetists, and theatre room staff or from a zoom out shot after the operation ends. The explicit nature of what unfolds on screen, in terms of human flesh and body fluids, is not for the faint-hearted. The inside of a human body is a maze of colours and textures that is intriguing and repulsive in equal measures. A sequence in the pathology lab where a breast lump is cut and examined under the microscope hunting for cancer cells is an arresting visual spectacle. The fascinating architecture of tumour cells, and their spread amongst neighbouring vascular and fibrous tissues, are juxtaposed by the brutality of poor prognosis discussed by the pathology consultant.
The conversations between doctors and nurses overheard by the viewer tell volumes about a healthcare system faltering under pressure, and limited resources. All members of staff are multi-tasking juggling an ever-increasing workload; doctors acting as porters to get patients to operating rooms is not unusual. Voices of discontent about poor management are rife. The lack of joy and staff burnout are palpable. A ‘leaving do’ for a doctor escaping France to greener pastures is full of black humour and overtones indicative of a common scenario, a mass exodus of staff is likely to be imminent.
How hospital staff survive this bleak environment is a key discourse for the film makers. Their film is not an aesthetically beguiling exercise in indulgence. Healthcare assistants in the hospital morgue getting bodies ready for ‘disposal’ while listening to music is food for thought; have these human beings lost their humanity? Is it a curse or a blessing that their feelings and emotions are blunted while facing mortality? Can they endure and survive all this misery if they invest emotionally in every loss or trauma? In a journal interview, Castaing-Taylor comments: “They need to put a distance between themselves and their patients. They need to objectify and instrumentalize them to some degree, superficially at least, in order to be able to perform all these perverse transgression on their bodies, even if it’s with a view to repairing them, healing them. But obviously that is an extraordinarily perverse and powerful and overwhelming position to be in, and their transgressions also exact a toll on themselves.”
In other scenes, we follow two confused women wandering aimlessly around hospital corridors, another female patient stuck in a wheelchair shrieking intermittently, and a disorientated man trying to open an elevator door without luck; these frail bodies and troubled souls complete the mosaic of body cavities and lumens we have just seen. The agony and suffering are evident in both, a fate that is shared by patients and hospital staff alike. Even a new-born baby crying is a metaphor for its fear of a sorrowful future existence.
There might still be a glimmer of hope; an extended final scene of a rowdy party in the hospital staff room featuring the song of Gloria Gaynor ‘I will survive’ suggests that while we, doctors, and patients, are still alive, we might just survive!
 “We Try Not to Think”: Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor on De Humani Corporis Fabrica. Nicolas Rapold in Directors, Festivals & Events, Interviews on Jun 3, 2022, https://filmmakermagazine.com/114907-cannes-interview-verena-paravel-lucien-castaing-taylor-de-humani-corporis-fabrica/#.YzlKdnbMJPZ. Accessed 2nd October 2022.