By Monica Delgado

Premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight, as part of the 75th Cannes Film Festival, De humani corporis fabrica by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor is an immersion in the world of a group of French public hospitals and morgues. Cesarean sections, prostate operations, cornea prostheses, spinal cord repairs, mastectomies, and other topics that are reserved for the view and work of medical personnel, are extracted from their natural space to become a process of observation before new spectators.

In Oh Uomo! (2004), documentarians Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi re-edit scenes filmed for orthopedists and physiotherapists in the First World War, in order to design better prostheses for the victims. From this discarded material, the Italian filmmakers explore an anatomical catalog of mutilated of all caliber, and that becomes a show of horror and shock. Wounded and lost bodies as an allegory about what the war always wanted to keep out of the field. Although the film by Paravel and Castaing-Taylor does not outline a gallery of horror as a possibility of facing anguish after the war (as Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi once did), it manages to decenter the very nature of those images from this anatomical inquiry: images that are no longer captured for medical or investigative purposes, but for aesthetic purposes, for spectators in some movie theater (or festival).

Although De humani corporis fabrica is not a work about human suffering, but rather about the mechanical and sophisticated ways of healing, a quote from Susan Sontag taken from Before the pain of others is appropriate: “Perhaps the only people with the right to see images of such extreme suffering are the ones who can do something to alleviate it—for example, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken—or who can learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether we intend to be or not.” Sontag analyzes the exploitation of pain in the representation of war in photography, however, this phrase that I expropriate, and associate with the context of this American and French film, alludes to this provoked denaturalization, usurped of that possible relief that could provide the medical staff in their studies. For Paravel and Castaing-Taylor, delving from laparoscopic cameras to the centers of the stomach, the spinal column, the intestines or the penis is an expressive journey into a world of fascination.

The filmmakers indicate in their synopsis that they take the title of the film from the work of Andrés Vesalius, published in 1543. A treatise on human anatomy, full of woodcuts and inquiries for scientific purposes, syndicated as the first of its kind. But rather than this fixed visual universe, what the filmmakers propose is a sort of reactivation of a universe already proposed by Stan Brakhage around bodies and institutions (a morgue and a hospital) in two films of his Pittsburgh trilogy : we refer to The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971) and Deus Ex (1971), and that synchronize ideas around the resistance to death. Brakhage argued about Deus Ex that the film arose during a stay in a hospital and that in it “the entire battle of the hospital continues to be imagined on these grounds, even cardiac surgery seen as equivalent to the Aztec ritual sacrifice… How far do men go to avoid a relationship as simple as it is direct, with Death” (quoting a poem by Charles Olson). And, unlike the reflexive search for ideas around the materiality of Brakhage’s death, what the filmmakers who graduated from Harvard propose is precisely to identify this relationship between knowledge and machinery, as if the world of contemporary medicine were a fusion between cyborgs and viscera. The final shot of frivolization of the medical world is proof of the point of view that is wanted to impose on everything seen. Doctors bored with their jobs and where bodies are more than just pieces of a work routine.

The experience here of Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor differs from the more “ethnographic” postulates of Leviathan (2012), Somniloquies (2017) or Caniba (2017), to the extent that in these films the distance with objects or subjects observed nullifies the “guideline” position of the authors. In De humani corporis fabrica, his position is clear: there is a moment that clearly messes with the text The Abject by Jacques Rivette: a tracking shot of some elderly women through a hospital passageway while we hear moans, very pitiful, of pain. Then, the camera turns carefully, assembling the sequence shot, to find where that tremendous noise is coming from, and we see the face of a very old woman in delirium. From the machine that heals to the machine that records and aestheticizes pain.