What is it about human nature that makes men want to climb the highest mountains, explore unknown regions in search of a rumored paradise or challenge their perceptions of the world in the name of self-discovery? It is this eternal quest that drives the narrative of La Vallée (English title: The Valley, 1972), Barbet Schroeder’s second feature film after More (1969), a drug addiction drama that explores a similar theme of people who go too far in seeking ultimate experiences and sensations. Both films were made at a time when the youth culture of the late sixties was becoming more pessimistic and cynical about the hippie lifestyle. While More is a deep dive into hedonism that has the structure of a traditional drama, The Valley is a stranger affair. It combines ethnographic documentary elements with a loose storyline about a small group of hipster explorers who are intent on discovering an unexplored area on a map of Papua, New Guinea that is marked as a valley obscured by clouds.
The Valley opens with an unidentified narrator describing a mountainous area of New Guinea which is too remote and inaccessible for even the most intrepid explorer. That challenge will soon be taken up by Gaetan (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and a tiny entourage that includes his wife Monique (Monique Giraudy), a son (Jerome Beauvarlet), Olivier, a guide (Michael Gothard) and his companion Hermine (Valerie Lagrange). Viviane (Bulle Ogier), the wife of a French diplomat, will eventually join their party, excited by the prospect of acquiring valuable native artifacts for her Parisian boutique.
Before their journey begins, Viviane displays all the traits of an entitled bourgeois housewife who confirms the worst stereotypes about tourists. We see this on display in her first scene as she tries to persuade and then bribe a local store owner to sell her some exotic Kumul feathers, which is in the bird-of-paradise family. Enter Olivier, who has just returned from an expedition with more colorful plumage from the Kumul to sell. In her excitement, Viviane accidentally drops a hand carved dagger on Olivier’s foot, piercing it and requiring a visit to the closest emergency room. How’s that for a weird “meet cute” moment?
Viviane’s accidental meeting with Olivier motivates her to ingratiate herself with the Gaetan party in hopes of striking up a business relationship for her import business. Instead, it leads her to join them on their journey to an uncharted valley and slowly abandon her conventional beliefs for the group’s more open-minded, free-spirited approach to life including sexual partners.
[Spoiler alert] Long before The Valley reaches its mystical climax, it is obvious that Barbet Schroeder is less interested in the final destination than the journey along the way. We see the explorers trek deeper and deeper into an unknown region where they are forced by the rough terrain to exchange their jeep for horses and eventually to relinquish them as well. Then they run out of food. What next?
In the hands of another director, the film could have been a tense and gripping survival tale about some quasi-hippies who risk their lives without realizing it. Schroeder approaches the story in a more detached manner as if he is doing a cinema verité behavioral study of tribal people. On the one hand you have a group of white Europeans trying to shed their cultural and psychological baggage in exchange for some higher spiritual enlightenment. Juxtaposed against them is the Mapuga tribe of New Guinea (played by the actual natives, not actors) who worship the earth and live by the laws of their ancestral gods.
The result is an odd but entrancing experience that occasionally feels like an uncomfortable mash-up between one of Jean Rouch’s anthropological portraits like The Mad Masters (1955), a subtle satire of the sixties counterculture and indie cinema of the improvised, avant-garde kind. The ending, in particular, was baffling to many viewers who might have assumed the Gaetan party had realized their goal and reached nirvana. Schroeder wanted the final fade-out to be more specific about the fate of the explorers and explained it in an interview with Emilie Bickerton: “There was something shocking about characters putting themselves as tourists in an ethnographic situation. That was troubling. But at the same I did not want to make a film condemning them. I wanted to enter into the madness of my characters. When the film was made in 1972 it was already the end of the hippy culture. The film was not ahead of its time but actually a testimony to the end of all the hippy adventures…So it was easier for me to make them ‘die’ at the end.”
The Valley works better in bits and pieces than as a fully realized cinematic trip but those moments are dazzling enough to make Schroeder’s film well worth seeing. First of all, the lush, primeval landscapes of New Guinea and the Mapuga tribal rituals captured by cinematographer Nestor Almendros (Days of Heaven) have a trippy, other worldly quality that works well with the Pink Floyd score. The psychedelic guitar riffs, drumming effects and the use of the synthesizers are particularly effective background music as the Gaetan party drinks some herbal concoction in one scene and experience LSD-like hallucinations under a full moon.
A word of warning to viewers, however, on the segment depicting the celebration of roasted pig skin. Several live pigs are clubbed to death on camera, skinned and then roasted and the effect is just as disturbing and hard to watch as something in one of those Mondo Cane-like exploitation documentaries like Africa Addio.
The casting in The Valley is also decidedly eccentric and so are the performances. Jean-Pierre Kalfon as the quietly obsessed leader of the group is barely developed as a character and has minimal dialogue but when he speaks it is usually to utter something enigmatic like “We must destroy time to become one with it.” As Viviane, Bulle Ogier is completely believable if unsympathetic as the main protagonist. She seems to think she is losing all of her inhibitions and hang-ups as she wades deeper into the wild but she is only becoming more superficial and pretentious. The scene where she drapes a beautiful green snake around her neck and toys with it before realizing it is poisonous is indelible. So is the scene where, in her drug induced state, she curls up like a baby in the cavity of a massive tree. Best of all is a fantasy sequence where Viviane is surrounded by a bizarre array of tribal performers wearing oversized mud heads and white ash on their bodies.
As for Michael Gothard as Olivier, he has almost no chemistry with Ogier even though they are supposed to be lovers. He seems miscast here, alternating between awkward self-consciousness and genial passivity which is a shame because he has been quite memorable in other roles such as the inquisitor in Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and the villainous henchman Locque in the James Bond thriller For Your Eyes Only (1981).
Still, Gothard does emerge as the one character who becomes genuinely sympathetic and seems to realize their mission is doomed. When Viviane thinks she has established a psychic bond with the Mapuga, she gushes to him, “It’s amazing. We’ve become so close to them we’re almost like them…we’ve found truth!” Olivier’s response to her could be Schroeder’s take on any white European who tries to assimilate himself into an indigenous culture like the Mapuga people. “It’s not possible to decode oneself. Once it’s lost, innocence cannot be found again. Paradise is a place with many exits, but no entrance. There’s no way back from knowledge. When you fall from grace, it’s over.”
Barbet Schroeder has enjoyed a fascinating and multi-faceted career in film. Of Swiss and German parentage, he was born in Tehran, Iran and entered the movie industry first as an actor in some of the early French New Wave films of Jean-Luc Godard (Les Carabiniers, 1963), Eric Rohmer (The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1963) and Jacques Rivette (Out 1, 1971). He emerged as a writer-director with More starring Klaus Grunberg and American actress Mimsy Farmer in a role that launched her career in European art house cinema, giallo and international genre efforts like the rarely seen French thriller Le Traque (1975). Let’s also not forget Schroeder’s work as a producer on such films as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Chinese Roulette (1976), Nestor Almendros & Orlando Jimenez Leal’s 1984 documentary Improper Conduct and Raoul Ruiz’s Shattered Image (1998).
In some ways I find Schroeder’s directorial career much more interesting between the years of 1969 and 1987 when he also dabbled in some wonderful, quirky documentaries like General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait (1974) and Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978) as well as critically acclaimed indies like Barfly (1987) starring Mickey Rourke as a drunken poet based on Charles Bukowski.
Most American moviegoers only know Schroeder for the high profile, commercial films he made in the U.S. like the Oscar winning drama Reversal of Fortune, which garnered Schroeder his only Best Direction nomination to date, Single White Female (1992) starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh and the 1995 crime thriller Kiss of Death, a remake of the 1947 noir. If you have only seen his work in these films, you owe it to yourself to investigate his earlier oeuvre. More, Maitresse (1976), a compelling relationship drama set in the world of S&M and starring Schroeder’s longtime companion Bulle Ogier, and The Valley are great places to start.
The Valley (Obscured by Valley) was released on DVD by Image Entertainment in 2012 and is probably out of print at this point. If you have an all-region Blu-Ray player, you can purchase a beautifully restored dual format release of the film from the BFI (British Film Institute) in 2010. The extras include three short ethnographic films Schroeder made on New Guinea tribes in the early 70s, an illustrated booklet on the making of the film and more.
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