De Humani Corporis Fabrica review – surprisingly satisfying look at what we’re made of
The new film by the Leviathan directors, comprising disorientating surgery footage, gets up close and personal with people’s insides
Consider the human body. All its crevasses and fluids. All parts squishy and bulbous. Not your thing? Watching De Humani Corporis Fabrica, you have no choice but to consider it – the ways our many, micro bodily functions come together to give us identity, function, and purpose are on full display in disorientating footage from a handful of Parisian hospitals and their surgeons.
In the process of diving into bodies, staring at X-rays, and listening to the chatter of doctors, nurses, and porters, we gain a slight glimpse into massive subjects, like where we end and our bodies begin, or the day-to-day relationship between our physiology and the medical institutions that try to keep us upright, walking, and healthy.
There’s a tangible sense of being trapped inside De Humani – or more aptly, that the audience is incapacitated as they’re wheeled through corridors and placed under invasive, overblown hospital lights. Most of the conversations we overhear feel superimposed onto the operation footage: there’s no way, we think, that people could speak in such blasé tones about mundane topics while they drill into skulls and climb around small intestines. You start to imagine how the medical subjects being operated on would feel watching what directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel have captured of their surgeries – it’s not entirely comforting to realise that while you were under anaesthetic, your surgeons were making mistakes and cursing funding cuts.
When we’re not up close and personal with people’s insides, the directors are reluctant to shoot things plainly, electing to focus on muzzled dogs being led by grainy individuals, or shadows dancing on walls in the staff’s precious moments of reprieve. But the long, exploring shots of rehabilitative and elderly wards offer plenty of human faces that stick with you: a reminder of the swathes of people whose bodies are committing self-sabotage, who cannot be cured by being cut open and stitched back up.
It’s difficult to overstate how satisfying it can be to see what our bodies look like when they’re being operated on. “Satisfaction” may be the last thing that comes to mind when seeing the grisly details of surgery, but seeing how we function in incredible detail reveals the many unseen, vital patterns that go on in harmony under our skin.
What’s more, the images are so abstracted that you often forget you’re looking at something that very well could be happening inside you right now – it turns out we need a lot of context to understand what does what in the human body. At times, it looks like we’re under water; it looks like we’re in the atmosphere; it looks like we’re peering at atoms. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have made an authentically scientific artwork, one that readily admits how little we really understand about what makes our bodies human, in the process recording the psychology behind the collective efforts to keep us alive.
De Humani Corporis Fabrica is now streaming on MUBI.Where to watch