Bulle Ogier and Jean-Pierre Kalfon strike a pose in a publicity photo for La Vallée, click to enlarge
La Vallée (The Valley [Obscured by Clouds]) Produced and directed by Barbet Schroeder. Cinematography by Néstor Almendros. Edited by Denise De Casabianca. Music by Pink Floyd. Filmed in Techniscope and Eastmancolor. 100 minutes, released in 1972 by Les Films du Losange. Cast: Bulle Ogier (Viviane), Jean-Pierre Kalfon (Gaetan), Michael Gothard (Olivier), Valerie Lagrange (Hermine), Jerome Beauvarlet (Yann), Monique Giraudy (Monique), and The Mapuga Tribe and its Chiefs.When Barbet Schroeder’s La Vallée was released in the United States in 1978, it was already six years old. Originally distributed in Europe in 1972, the film had all the ingredients for a cult hit in those heady times when marijuana smoke filled more than a few American movie theatres: a cast of young idealists and societal dropouts searching for nirvana, esoteric drug use, open sexuality, and a music score by Pink Floyd, recorded shortly before their signature hit, Dark Side of the Moon.
The belated release unfortunately missed the peak years of the ‘midnight show,’ the short-lived market that buzzed with druggy concoctions along the lines of El Topo (1970) and Eraserhead (1977). I first saw La Vallée in 1978 at the Valley Art theatre in Tempe, Arizona; and again a year later at San Francisco’s Strand, paired on both occasions with Schroeder’s More (1969), an erratic portrait of heroin addicts featuring what is, without question, the finest performance in Mimsy Farmer’s checkered career. At the time, given my patchouli-and-tea shades state of mind, La Vallée struck me as the work of a kindred spirit. From its opening shot panning over the mountains of New Guinea, set to the Floyd’s pulsing instrumental theme, the picture held me spellbound.
The producer and distributor of work by Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette, Barbet Schroeder made his directorial debut with More, co-writing it and La Vallée with Paul Gégauff, an author whose screenplays often delved into pet themes of dual natures and conflicting personas within the individual — the efforts of a man perhaps ill at ease in his own skin, or carrying a deep seated distrust of others: René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960), from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley, wherein a jet set wannabe consumes his well heeled role model; and a long string of pictures for Claude Chabrol, among them Les Biches (1968), in which a neglected sex partner loses her identity when morphing into a superficial copy of her alpha lover. Both of these pictures have similar scenes of characters believing they’re ‘transforming’ in front of mirrors, while effectively highlighting the lines separating one being from another, masters from servants.
The American release poster; click to enlarge
, Gégauff traces the transmutation of a hot tempered wanderer into a strung-out junkie attempting to take root in a secluded Spanish village with a woman unstuck in reality. In La Vallée
, it’s the gradual evolution of a capitalist bourgeois into a free spirit shedding all ties to conventional living. The pressbook for the film offers this synopsis:
Viviane is an uncomplicated young woman married to the French Consul in Melbourne. Her interests lead her to New Guinea in search of the near-extinct Bird of Paradise feathers, which she plans to send back for sale to Paris boutiques.
At Lae, a coastal town, she meets Olivier, a young adventurer who is about to leave with some friends on an expedition into bush country. Gaetan, the head of the expedition, reveals his secret goal is to discover an unknown valley in the phantom regions of the island which is still nothing but blank spots on the map — “obscured by clouds.”
Only the natives suspect its existence but do not dare explore it — for it is there that the Gods live.
Despite her misgivings, Viviane joins the expedition — to find her feathers. She wavers between doubt and fascination, hesitates about continuing and gradually discovers other visions of life outside her own. Her exposure to the lush environment, Papuan rites and instinctual love, pushes her further than her companions. As the search continues into the unexplored regions, the horses are abandoned and the expedition is stripped to the essentials.
At the point of exhaustion, they see a valley.
On the one hand, I doubt that Gégauff bought the concept of heaven on earth, if he ever believed in heaven at all. In the quasi-autobiographical Une partie de plaisir
(1975), a film written by and starring the author under the direction of Chabrol, we’re given a glimpse of him as a Hemingwayesque control freak making life miserable for his wife and daughter — who, incidentally, are played by his actual (second) wife and daughter. (Not long after its release, Gégauff was stabbed to death by his first wife.) But the Chabrol film also indicates that he was probably an alcoholic; and addicts, being what they are, habitually dream of some imaginary plateau where they can flee from responsibility and accountability.
Valerie Lagrange, Ogier, Kalfon and a Mapugan tribesman; click to enlarge
Also included in the pressbook is the following interview with Barbet Schroeder, conducted in 1971 by filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier
:Why this film after More? This film seems also to be a trip.
In one shot of More
, I had La Vallée
in mind: we see a chart of the human brain. The areas still unknown to modern science are left blank. The hero comments: “The brain is like a map of Africa: still largely uncharted. It is in these blank spots that the highest functions of reason and creativity take place.” At the beginning, La Vallée
was the story of a woman’s discovery of life and pleasure. But pleasure is a serious thing, full of anguish, which has no ultimate direction but a relationship with death. One must pay for it, one must “leave some feathers.” The two films realize a transformation and a journey of characters who try to push themselves to the limit, with all the risks which that involves. What is your position in relation to the characters?
I am no longer interested in classic heroes; documentaries, reportages, whether ethnologic or not, have taught us to look at individuals in a different way; their intensity of existence and their truth have taken precedence over psychology and “characterization.” I make no value judgments of my characters any more than of the natives, and I tried to keep the same distance in filming both, leaving them to develop freely. A caricature would have been too easy. Certain roles did not develop at all. Rather than typing them with a few specific traits, I preferred that they should be like people one encounters in life, whose presence one feels without knowing anything about them, but whom one would like to know.
Ogier and mudmen; click to enlarge
Why New Guinea? Why this expedition?
Because New Guinea is the last unknown. It is one of the only places on the globe where there still remain some unexplored regions, some blank spots on the map. It is also one of the last places where tribes can be found whose way of life is still close to Upper Neolithic. Only enlightened adventurers, spurred on by the need to seek out their origins, could have undertaken this search for a legendary valley. In another era they would have been mystic peasants, like those in the films of Glauber Rocha.
The hippies are the only contemporary movement which has produced a lunatic fringe filled with a spirit of adventure. I have tried as much as possible to eliminate all gratuitous hippy folklore in order to better describe a certain way of feeling. It would have been senseless to draw from the magnificent characters of the great American adventure stories, from Hawks to Hemingway, from The African Queen to Green Mansions, from H. Rider Haggard to Mogambo. . .
How much is improvisation, and how much is scripted?
Everything concerning the mountain tribe is obviously improvised, and a number of other sequences are partly improvised. In general we always tried to improvise, even within written scenes, but following the established structure scene by scene.
Are you trying to establish a relationship between people who are searching for a kind of primitivism, and the primitives themselves?
No, because there isn’t really much, except on the initial, warm, intense level of human beings who meet and, curious about each other, exchange gifts and hospitality. Beyond that, misunderstanding inevitably encroaches between a group which is the product of our industrial society and a tribe in the process of slowly emerging from the Stone Age.
How do you define this film?
All along, I’ve tried to keep as many meanings as possible, in order to avoid the possibility of leaving the film open to a single definition. What interests me, as John Huston says, “The pleasure of the journey itself rather than the goal.” It’s up to each individual to decide whether or not he wants to conclude that his dream of returning to the bosom of nature is a sad utopian vision, and a flight from the self and its implications in society.