De Humani Corporis Fabrica: The faint of heart should look away now

This French surgery documentary is cinema at its most visceral

De Humani Corporis Fabrica
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Director: Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
Cert: None
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Verena Paravel
Running Time: 1 hr 58 mins

In They’re Made Out of Meat, a 1991 short story by the science-fiction author Terry Bisson, two aliens are horrified to happen upon the carbon-based inhabitants of Earth. “Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!” exclaims one of the shocked extraterrestrials.

It’s a tale that comes to mind while surgeons in De Humani Corporis Fabrica graphically poke around an enlarged prostate. “I’m lost,” says one. “It’s a big prostate ... This guy’s weirdly put together.”

A warning for the faint of heart: Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s visceral tour of the human body is not for you. Squeamish readers should swiftly move to another review.

Centuries after the seven-volume guide to human anatomy written by the autopsy pioneer Andreas Vesalius thrilled and repelled its first readers, this film named after his study dissects the human body on screen. The anthropologist film-makers shot and edited 350 hours of surgical footage, across 30 French hospitals, to craft a remarkable journey through grey matter, blood vessels, spinal columns and vernix.


The epic results simultaneously function as endoscopic body horror, as a portrait of overworked and underfunded medical staff and as a business study of death.

Innards make for surprisingly otherworldly tableaux. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is rightly evoked as a tissue sample is propelled through a tube. A Cronenbergian spinal column is pieced together with screws. A close-up viewing of eye surgery is as surreal and jolting as the ocular incision found in Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. Metastasised cancer cells recall the early cinema abstractions of Len Lye.

The vulnerability of patients under general anaesthetic is profound and upsetting

For all the corporeal focus, the film’s most powerful moments touch on the fragility of personhood with the philosophical consideration of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition or Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus.

A continuous bird-like squawking in a ward is revealed as the sound of an elderly patient who has lost other faculties and agency. The vulnerability of patients under general anaesthetic is profound and upsetting.

Elsewhere, medical practitioners complain about the lack of nurses or orderlies and chat as they cut. One doctor makes an erection joke as a catheter is shoved into a man’s urethra. The cooing care of a team performing a Caesarean section is counterpointed with the bloody lacerations required by the procedure.

Graffitied alleyways under the hospital, a network of corridors and a Bacchanalian denouement form another nervous system around many fleshy organisms.

De Humani Corporis Fabrica is available on Mubi. It is also screening at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, on Friday, June 23rd

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic