Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel are the French documentary film-makers who in 2012 gave us Leviathan, an experimental and immersively strange account of life on a fishing trawler in the north Atlantic. In 2017 their Somniloquies was a hallucinatory, image-driven film about sleep-talking, while Caniba was about the notorious Japanese murderer and cannibal Issei Sagawa and the strange half-life of his later years, when he was immobilised by a cerebral infarction.
Their new film does for the human body what Leviathan did for the alien world of the sea: an account of surgical and clinical procedures in a number of Paris hospitals, with extreme, disorientating closeups and some deeply disturbing images, including one mortuary scene of a dead body being dressed in the “civilian” clothes of the living. It gives us brutally candid images of operations on the eye, the brain and the penis, and takes us into the surreal, microsurgical inner-space of the body: you might find yourself thinking of the 60s sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage with Raquel Welch and other miniaturised adventurers journeying through the body’s macrocosmos. The title is taken from Andreas Vesalius’s classic anatomical study of 1543, revolutionary in its day for its fiercely rationalist, materialist emphasis on examining what the body really is, but with bizarre, nonrational illustrations of animated corpses appearing to open themselves up, like Jesus and the sacred heart.
This film starts very much as Leviathan starts: with a long, dark, bewilderingly murky shot in which we can’t be entirely sure what we’re looking at. In fact it appears to be a security guard with a dog patrolling the basement (or the bowels perhaps) of the hospital building, the gloomy passageways analogous to the body’s slimy tubes. Another long, static shot of obscure figures reflected in a glass in the ICU is accompanied by doctors chatting candidly about everything and nothing, about death and life. An MRI image of the brain, its picture-plane moving through the skull, creates a fascinating animated picture, while the scanner itself does its oddly mechanical low-tech buzzing and clanging.
There are brutal, almost black-comic “reveal” shots: a patient chats with the doctor and the camera pulls back to reveal he is operating on the fully conscious man’s brain. There’s a closeup of an unidentifiable object, which reveals itself to be an eye under the knife. A penis has something inserted into it, while the doctors cheerfully talk among themselves – though often not so cheerfully: one is deeply depressed and overworked. But much of the film immerses us in an unknowable, unrecognisable world under the skin, without shape, without what Vesalius wanted to show us in the 16th century. It is an uncanny spectacle.