LA VALLÉE (Obscured by Clouds)
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Cast: Bulle Ogier, Valerie Lagrange, Michael Gothard, Jérome Beauvarlet
(Public Media, Inc., 1972) Rated: Not Rated
DVD release date: 25 February 2003 (Home Vision Entertainment)
by Erich Kuersten
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Barbet Schroeder got his start during the French New Wave as a film critic, an assistant to Jean Luc Godard, and soon after, a producer of many of Eric Rohmer’s “Moral Tales” and as a director of documentaries. In the late 1980s, he made the jump to Hollywood; his most recent film was the Sandra Bullock vehicle Murder by Numbers (2002). Schroeder’s films reflect a producer’s sense of economy and restraint. Using dynamic camerawork, they’re often set in a particular location (an apartment or bar), where characters feel and look confined.
Two recently released DVDs of Schroeder’s early movies suggest the sorts of chances he used to take. 1972’s La Vallée is a documentary-style road trip movie, a sort of French Easy Rider (1969) in the New Guinea jungle. On the other hand, Tricheurs (1984) takes place almost entirely indoors, in giant hotel casinos on the island of Madeira. The first creates a sense of limitless freedom, and the second is claustrophobic. In both, however, characters yearn for “more” (More being the title of Schroeder’s first film, released in 1967); their eventual self-destruction matters less than their desires to move on.
Though its Pink Floyd soundtrack is famous, most of La Vallée has no music, only background animal noises and French dialogue. The story concerns Monique (Bulle Ogier), the bored young wife of a French banker, who travels extensively as a buyer for a French boutique. A chance meeting with a hippie named Yann (Jérome Beauvarlet) leads her to the New Guinea rainforest. She is initially searching for some beautiful, rare feathers. The hippies with whom she’s traveling seek a hidden valley, hidden by clouds, that is supposed to be paradise. Monique soon abandons her feather quest in favor of the hippies’ quixotic pursuit.
Viewers expecting this to turn into a psychedelic odyssey may be disappointed. Scenes that would benefit from a Pink Floyd assault (for instance, Monique’s tripping sequence, when she starts talking to a poisonous snake and writhing among tree roots) strangely lack musical accompaniment. Only when the group finally reaches its destination does the rock soundtrack become prominent. What saves the movie is the incredible cinematography by Nestor Almendros, and the amazing faces of the New Guinea natives — well captured on the DVD’s excellent transfer. During an extended series of documentary-like scenes, the hippies wander among the tribespeople, accepted in a fascinating ceremony that includes elaborate makeup and dancing, and the disturbing, on-camera slaughter of three pigs. This “heavy trip” recalls the best moments of other counter-cultural films, like Easy Rider and Apocalypse Now (1979), where the trappings of fiction seem to fall away to reveal something magical.
Tricheurs suffers by comparison. Surrounded by a lot of men in bad suits and worse haircuts, Bulle Ogier looks the worse for wear. Elric (Jacques Dutronc) is a gambling addict who latches onto a faded blonde beauty named Suzie (Ogier) when he sees the number “7” on her back. Their dysfunctional love leads to some intense scams, pulled on the casino and each other, but the film is most compelling as a portrait of addiction. Elric tries desperately to fathom the chaotic logic of “chance,” devising “systems” to win. A fellow gambler recruits him into a scam wherein Elric’s big-loser theatrics are supposed to distract a croupier. But Elric the addict can’t quit when he’s on a winning streak; he plays on, making bigger and crazier bets until he loses everything. He wins fortunes, but only feels alive when he loses them.
For Schroeder, gambling — in both films, really — becomes a metaphor for the allure of the unknown. Like Elric, Olivier (Michael Gothard), the leader of the travelers in La Vallée, is driven to a head-on encounter with destiny. But Olivier is more self-aware and more available to his surroundings (the jungle “spirits”). His buddy Yann is less convinced of the possibility for a return to innocence: “Paradise is a room with many exits and no entrance,” he exclaims. Olivier’s conviction parallels Elric’s: each believes that “freedom” can be reached via a “correct” spiritual attitude, either surrendering one’s life to chance or being “open” to the universe.
Despite his interest in these heady themes, Schroeder maintains a sense of moderation. He’s less of a sensualist than Bernardo Bertolucci, less enigmatic than Antonioni. Schroeder’s movies make spiritual quests seem dangerous, sometimes misguided. Though we may be enchanted by some of the scenery and local masks and costumes in La Vallée, we are never swept up in the intoxicating mystery. In Tricheurs, we are even less involved, as Elric and Suzie are increasingly unsympathetic and ill-advised. The film also features what may be the harshest, most unseductive gambling environment in recent memory. Still, Schroeder’s odd lack-of-style style suits the films’ cautionary tales. When his characters leap into the unknown, you watch them from the safety of the ledge, rather than plunging in after them.