“De humani corporis fabrica will have you roiling, make you look on in amazement, ponder life questions, and be glad that hospital workers exist.”
One of the most uncomfortable films to watch in Cannes this year is also one of the most intelligent ones, and the most interesting. The tagline for Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s documentary De humani corporis fabrica says, “The human body as you have never seen before,” but that doesn’t truly cover the full scope of the film, seeing that it is as much, if not more, about the people that try to maintain and repair the body as it is about the body itself. A portrait of the hospital as an institution by portraying it as a body, a living organism, De humani corporis fabrica will have you roiling, make you look on in amazement, ponder life questions, and be glad that hospital workers exist, for these are some of the most important people in society. As such, the film should be a required watch for lawmakers who think about healthcare in terms of spreadsheets. But De humani corporis fabrica is also an ode to the beauty of our bodies and to life and death and all that comes in between.
“It’s the inside that counts,” they say. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel show us those insides, and it’s as if a new world opens up. Using the imagery from tiny cameras inserted into the body to assist surgeons during procedures, the film shows alien landscapes, surprisingly beautiful at times, as miniature arms scrape and cut and suck up fluids as if gardening on some far-flung planet. De humani corporis fabrica covers a range of procedures and it is unfortunately not always clear what we are looking at, but it includes most of the major bodily functions. As we move through the different departments in the hospital, each with its own specialty, in a way we move through the body as well. The film also shows parts of the hospital that make it work as a ‘body’ of sorts. The camera roams through dark, graffiti-covered basements, the bowels of the building, mimicking the imagery of the inside of actual bowels we saw earlier. We shoot through pneumatic tubes, camera mounted on a cylindrical container transporting its contents as if it were a blood cell moving nutrients around.
Life and death are close to each other, certainly in a hospital. A C-section (which had this reviewer’s jaw on the floor) brings new life into the world in all its gory glory, while elsewhere two orderlies dress up a dead man to an upbeat tune playing through the morgue’s speakers. There is a routine to it all, which leads to some unexpected and at times very funny conversations between the people performing the procedures. They discuss apartment rents, talk smack about other departments, or discuss work efficiency. Surgeons berate students assisting in operations, not mincing words. We tend to put the medical profession on a pedestal, and to a large degree rightfully so, but De humani corporis fabrica shows that those on the inside are just doing their jobs, having the same banal conversations as office workers or service industry staff.
In some ways an outlier, the psych ward is visited several times. Shuffling septuagenarians make their way through endless corridors, telling each other over and over to hurry up as they move at a snail’s pace. A man manages to escape his room and with great patience is talked back into it. Gross as some of the operations may be, these are perhaps the most painful scenes to watch. Everything else we see is repair work, putting things back in order in the fabric of the human body, but here all order is gone forever. It is a reminder that the body is a complex machine that can sputter, and sometimes parts are broken forever.
As the film closes to the rapid-fire beats, pulsating like a heartbeat, of New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ at a farewell party for one of the staff, the camera glides over a large mural in a cavernous dungeon they call a rec room. It shows caricatures of staff members in lewd positions, with large erect penises and in various states of copulation. When you have life and death in your hands on a daily basis, when you are confronted with the inescapable and irreversible deterioration of the body at every hour of the day, your ways to unwind can be more extreme than others. But in a way the mural is also a celebration of the human body, and of the people that help us to maintain it. De humani corporis fabrica is an ode to the body, yes, but it is most of all an ode to healthcare and the people providing it.