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La vallée/The Valley (Obscured by Clouds): extracts from the BFI booklet

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Jul. 6th, 1972 | 07:30 pm

From Emilie Bickerton's “A Short History of Cahiers de Cinema" (2009)

When a 30-year-old Schroeder and his team set off in 1971 to the south pacific island of Papua New Guinea to shoot The Valley he was still riding the wave of success and notoriety created by his first feature More (1969) … More and The Valley share striking similarities thematically and aesthetically, and are worth thinking of as a pair. ‘The brain is like a map of Africa’ the protagonist in More says, ‘still largely uncharted. It is in these blank spots that the highest functions of reason and creativity take place.’ The Valley, in response to this statement, is another manifestation of the human need to seek the undiscovered … In both films, the journeys eventually lead to death … The hippies in The Valley, having rejected their own consumer societies for what they consider a purer, more integral and natural existence, have a geographic rather than hedonistic goal …

BFI booklet

The Valley’s protagonist does not start out a hippy … Bulle Ogier’s Viviane is a woman with a big purse and dollar signs in her eyes. She communicates through acts of trade … coveting a set o ff fabulous feathers that only an adventurer, Michael Gothard’s Olivier, can obtain for her.

The Valley charts Viviane’s transformation from stuck-up bourgeoius dame to free spirit, dancing with the tribes and making love in the forest. Along the way, she abandons Apollo (Olivier) for Dionysus, incarnated by Jean-Pierre Kalfon’s Gaetan – a trajectory Schroeder drew from Neitzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.

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Apollo tempers Viviane’s liberation however. When she is singing like a native, revelling in all the love, and declares, ‘we have found the truth’, it is Olivier, having initiated her into this world, who rejects it: we are the liars, he says, we are the tourists.

It’s easy to dance with them, but could you work with these women? They are even more exploited here than elsewhere and live in a society bound by very strict rules. It’s not like us. We’re trying to break ours. When they dance it is not simply for pleasure. It is to obey something. We seek only after pleasure and maybe peace. They couldn’t care less about that. How can you expect to have real relationships between us, who tear down our social restrictions and laws, and them, who on the contrary live in terror and respect for taboos?

This speech turns the film on its head. What had started as an observation of two groups of people – hippies and the Mapuga tribespeople – becomes a more critical exploration of the dynamic between them, and its fraught, sometimes unpleasant undertone. The white, alienated westerners are getting off on primitive tribal ways. Ambivalence towards the protagonists, eventually expressed through Olivier’s personal scepticism, is woven into Schroeder’s mise-en-scene.

BFI 4 edit

As he questions the very nature of their journey, Olivier wonders whether they shouldn’t just go home and face the lives they have rejected, because any other solution is dishonest and futile. ‘It’s not possible to decode oneself’, he tells Viviane. ‘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. I wonder, to find it again, whether we shouldn’t do the opposite of what we’ve done. If we should not take another bite out of the apple.’

BFI2 edit small

From Bickerton’s interview with Barbet Schroeder, 2010

… In the end, it was a film made with just over a dozen people – cast and crew! The shoot took three months. The budget was totally minimum.

The Valley has something of the road movie about it too. A non-dramatic road movie is a very strange proposition. If we had done things dramatically we would have created an opposition between Apollo (Michael Gothard’s Olivier) and Dionysus (Jean-Pierre Kalfon’s Gaetan). We would have understood better that Olivier’s reasoning was a very strong argument made by the Apolloian character. But his dialogue, which we took from Kleist’s essay on the marionettes1, comes at the end. It is magnificent, but it comes too much as a surprise.

Q: How much was The Valley a criticism of hippy culture?

A little, in so far as we had Olivier. There was something shocking about characters putting themselves as tourists in an ethnographic situation. That was troubling. But at the same time I did not want to make a film condemning them. I wanted to enter into the madness of my characters.

1 ‘On the Marionette Theatre’, Heinrich von Kleist, 1810.

~~

Interviewed by Betrand Tavernier, Schroeder said: ‘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 ‘characterisation’ … 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.’

~~

Jane Giles: After The Devils, Gothard appeared as the apparently free-spirited Olivier in Barbet Schroeder’s The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) (1972). Blonde, bare-chested, towering over both the New Guinea tribes and his petite, bourgeois lover, played by Bulle Ogier, and delivering mostly French-language dialogue with a crisp English accent, Gothard is both elemental and incongruous, an outsider who eventually declares himself a tourist but is also set apart from his fellow travelers.

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