The hand, gloved in nitrile, was inserting a notched metal rod into something that took a moment to identify as the tip of a penis. “It’s on the machine-gun setting,” a woman’s voice said, in French, and it was true that the rat-a-tat sound that filled the cinema, as the rod began to plunge in and out of the orifice, was exactly like that of a Kalashnikov. It was October, the first Sunday night of the New York Film Festival, and the Walter Reade Theatre, at Lincoln Center, was packed. More than two hundred and fifty people had come to watch the American début of “De Humani Corporis Fabrica,” the latest documentary by the directing duo Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, though some of them were clearly now regretting it. Introducing the film, Paravel had warned that it might be discomforting. “Rather than leaving, you can also use your hand to go like that,” she suggested, covering her eyes. So far, viewers had followed her advice, clutching their faces as they watched a metal bolt being screwed into the skull of a man who lay awake, or moaning—Oh my God, oh my God—as an eye, pried open by a speculum, was sliced with a small blade. But the sight of the violated urethra was too much. In the middle of the theatre, a man stood up and fled his row.
“It happens all the time to people watching our films,” Paravel had told me the day before. “They puke or they faint.” In Milan, in 2017, she and Castaing-Taylor were walking to a post-screening Q. & A. for their movie “Caniba” when an ambulance peeled by, heading to the same place. Last May, when “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” had its première at Cannes, a member of the audience collapsed and had to be hospitalized.
Depicting reality is the goal of documentary films, but depiction alone doesn’t satisfy Paravel and Castaing-Taylor. They want to force viewers into a visceral confrontation with the real; if they could find a way to record smell, they would. Their training is in anthropology, and while they like to joke that they are “recovering” anthropologists, estranged from the field, their method of making films is indebted to that discipline’s practice of total immersion. Audiences are dropped into their movies like lobsters into a pot: no score to cue a mood, no voice-overs to establish facts—in fact, hardly any facts at all. “I like very much that they don’t explain things,” the documentarist Frederick Wiseman told me. “I hate didacticism, and I impute the same thing to them.” Sometimes, while they are editing a film, they will discover that they have inadvertently made it too legible, foreclosing the viewer’s imagination where they had hoped to activate it, so they will scrap that cut and start again.
Their first collaboration, “Leviathan,” from 2012, announced their distaste for storytelling. They shot it on a commercial fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts, but to say that the vertiginous, sea-sloshed result is about the fishing industry would be like saying that “Finnegans Wake” is about a wake. After watching it, a friend of Castaing-Taylor’s begged him to make a talking-head documentary, something that wouldn’t require Dramamine to sit through. Eventually, he and Paravel did. In “Caniba,” the talking head in question belongs to Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man who murdered and ate a classmate while studying abroad in Paris, in 1981. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor didn’t try to make sense of his act; instead, its incomprehensible horror seems to seep into the camera, which rests in extreme closeup on Sagawa’s clammy, impassive face. A critic called it one of “the most unpleasant movies ever made,” and that was a positive review. At Venice, the film won a special jury prize.
Paravel, who is French, is fifty-two, with dark, laughing eyes and a hummingbird energy. Castaing-Taylor is fifty-seven and English, and has the beard and hair of an aging Jesus. Because their films are challenging to watch, they tend to attract ardent cinephiles rather than the viewers who might, say, queue up for a documentary about a rock climber or an octopus. But at Lincoln Center it quickly became apparent that “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” was the duo’s most accessible work, and also their most ambitious.
The film, which is in theatres this month, is set in five hospitals in Paris, and what emerges, in the course of its two hours, is an extraordinarily intimate portrait of both the human body and the people who care for it. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor take us into operating rooms, intensive-care units, psychogeriatric wards, and mortuaries, and also into cafeterias and parking lots and dingy corridors—all the uncelebrated places that make up the hospital’s own corpus. They even thrust us inside the body itself, by way of medical footage that they incorporate with their own. The effect is awesome, distressing, surprising, moving, and, sometimes, darkly funny. In one scene, we see a nurse dressing a man who is lying on a gurney in a brightly lit room. A radio is playing upbeat music and, as she and a colleague pull a pair of briefs over the man’s hips, it comes as a shock to realize that they are handling a corpse.
In another scene, we observe a laparoscopic surgery to remove a cancerous prostate, watching the same feed that the doctors consult as they maneuver around the organ. The prostate is unusually big, and the surgeons seem bumbling and uncertain as the cavity fills with blood. “Why are you irrigating?” one snaps. “I don’t know,” another responds. “Where is the suction tube?” “It fell on the floor!” In other operating rooms, doctors chat about soaring rents and grumble about their long hours. It’s alarming to realize that their minds might be elsewhere—but they, too, are only human.
“I never give interviews,” Castaing-Taylor told me, when I interviewed him last September. It was a bright, mild morning, and we were sitting near his office at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, at Harvard, where he teaches. Some might find the international film circuit glamorous. To Castaing-Taylor, it is intolerable. A few weeks earlier, I had watched an interview that he and Paravel gave at Cannes to a British journalist. They were perched on a sofa, Paravel summery in a printed spaghetti-strap dress, Castaing-Taylor piratical in a black blouse unbuttoned nearly to the navel. Paravel sucked contemplatively on an e-cigarette as Castaing-Taylor tore into topics including the people featured in conventional documentaries (“They’re lying through their teeth”) and Cannes itself (“one of the most obscene spaces on the face of the earth”). Even the softest of softballs were ritually impaled. What, the journalist wanted to know, could viewers expect from “De Humani Corporis Fabrica”? “If we could tell them what to expect with words,” Castaing-Taylor replied, “we wouldn’t have made the film.”
In a world flooded with turgid artist statements, Castaing-Taylor believes that his work should stand on its own terms. “I put my all into it,” he told me. “Whatever I or the film or the world is trying to express through the film, I have really nothing to add.” Before my visit, he asked if I had seen any of his and Paravel’s work in a movie theatre. Only at home, I admitted. “That’s like reading a novel where you read one word out of two,” he said. In the Carpenter’s basement cinema, he had arranged a film festival for one, with screenings of movies that he and Paravel had made together, as well as others that had come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, the cinematic incubator that he founded at Harvard nearly twenty years ago. The Lab acts as a producer, lending equipment, funds, and feedback to filmmakers whose projects, in the words of its mission statement, seek “to explore the aesthetics and ontology of the natural and unnatural world.” That description is purposefully abstract. The mission is simply to make work of a kind that has never been seen before.
The SEL is housed in the Vanserg Building, a former radar laboratory, near the edge of campus, that has no truck with the Ivy splendor of its surroundings. This suits Castaing-Taylor. “One of the profligate things Harvard does is delight in tearing buildings down without any particular reason and putting up other buildings that look like Hilton hotels, with fake wainscoting everywhere,” he said, as we made our way to the second floor. We stopped at a door set into a blood-red wall, which bore a plaque with the words “Arrête Ton Cinéma”—“Enough drama,” in French idiom, although the literal meaning, “Stop your cinema,” might be more germane.
Stepping through was like passing from Kansas into Oz. Outside were fluorescent-lit classrooms equipped with whiteboards. Within was a loft painted the color of mango and cherry, appointed with a long wooden dining table and crowded with art work. A cold-water-survival suit hung on one wall, a coyote pelt on another. A third was given over to a massive blackboard, which was covered in scribblings.
Taking off his shoes, Castaing-Taylor opened the fridge to pour himself a drink. “It’s Beyoncé’s master cleanse,” he said. “Lemon juice and cayenne.” In the adjoining room, a futon was tucked by a window. For years, Castaing-Taylor lived in a small house in the South of France, but he recently moved to another, in Catalonia, overlooking the Mediterranean. “I hope to die there,” he said. During the six or so months that he spends in Cambridge, he often pulls all-nighters at the SEL, showering at the gym. It isn’t home, but, filled with the remnants of homes past, it’s close enough.
Castaing-Taylor was born in 1966 in Liverpool. His father worked at a company that built ships; his mother stayed home to raise Lucien and his younger brother. “I was a happy kid,” Castaing-Taylor said. “But I didn’t thrive at anything, particularly. I had no hobbies.” At thirteen, he decided to be baptized into the Church of England, a small act of rebellion against his secular parents. He applied to read theology at Cambridge, but had lost his faith by the time he arrived, so he switched to philosophy. When that disappointed, he switched again, to anthropology.
Growing up in Liverpool had made Castaing-Taylor feel “very provincial.” He sensed that anthropology could open the world to him, and it did. After his second year at university, he got a grant to travel to Africa, and spent a summer hitchhiking across the continent. “I hadn’t really travelled much outside of England, so it was just completely amazing to be this sort of rinky-dink country-bumpkin-from-Liverpool white guy in Zaire,” he said. He thought of staying at Cambridge to pursue a Ph.D., but he longed to flee both England, with its obsession with class, and academia, with its obsession with words. He heard about a master’s program in visual anthropology at the University of Southern California. Los Angeles seemed about as far from Britain as he could get, so he decided to apply.
At Cambridge, Castaing-Taylor had begun to work with a 35-mm. Nikon camera, photographing classic anthropological subjects like the Dogon people of West Africa. “I was still thinking like a self-taught 101 photographer, just wanting to compose shots,” he said. At U.S.C., though, the focus was on moving images.
Anthropology is not much older than cinema itself. People have always looked at other groups of people and drawn conclusions about them, but the modern basis for the field—the idea that humans might be studied scientifically, in relation to their environment, and that doing so might tell us something about the species as a whole—emerged from Darwin’s theory of evolution. Observation was the method, objectivity the goal, and the motion-picture camera seemed to satisfy both. Anthropologists embraced the camera as a device that could expand the scope of their work, and films like “Nanook of the North,” Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 landmark portrait of an Inuit family in Quebec, in turn expanded the possibilities of cinema.
Over time, anthropologists began to wonder whether the camera was truly neutral. In 1976, the former collaborators—and former spouses—Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson sat down for a conversation on the subject. In the thirties, they had spent two years in Bali and returned with some twenty-two thousand feet of 16-mm. film. They had since reached opposite conclusions about the medium’s purpose. Mead felt that film should be used as a data-gathering tool; she dreamed of a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree camera that could capture an environment in its totality. For Bateson, this was a fool’s game.