Saturday, October 10, 2009

Obscured by obscurity: La Vallee (review)

The film La Vallee has intrigued me ever since seeing some stills on the cover of the Pink Floyd soundtrack album Obscured By Clouds, which I bought in 1974 or so on the grounds that it was cheaper than Dark Side of The Moon; it remains one of my favourite Floyd albums, partly because it retains a complexity and imprecision, recounting a narrative in verbal snapshots, interspersed with droning instrumentals.

It is hard for people nowadays to relaise just how obscure the obscure used to be. Even a film whose soundtrack was provided by one of the most famous groups in the world was almost impossible to access - it wasn't even shown in cinemas in the United States until 1978, and never made it onto VHS. It is easier these days to watch a celebrity sex tape than it used to be to watch a non-mainstream foreign film (or so I've heard). This is progress. A search result in You Tube suddenly reminded me that I could at last, with no expense and minimal effort, see the film in all its glory (La Vallee, I mean, not the sex tape). Although many clips have been posted on YouTube, most have been deleted for copyright reasons, but an apparently legitimate full version has been published on Google Video.

The film was directed by Barbet Schroeder, using a French cast (with some English dialogue), and was filmed in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, an area still remote and largely unexplored, and more so in 1973. The key character is Vivian (the beautiful Bulle Ogier) who travels (literally and metaphorically) from the unsatisfying materialistic world of a privileged Westerner to more primitive and simpler freedoms, in the company of a hippy gang and the natives they meet on the way to the mysterious valley whose location is unknown even to mapmakers since it is obscured by clouds.

Viewers should note that there some nudity and sex and some pigs being killed (less than these screenshots would imply - they have for some reason chosen the two most explicit parts of the whole film), but the main danger is that of boredom - its pace is slow and it adopts a documentary-style approach to both travel and encounters.

Is it any good? To me, there is strange culture historical shift in viewing a nearly-40-year-old film - the natives are still natives, but the colonials and the hippies are dinosaurs. The consistent moral contrast between white civilisation, violent, money-grubbing, exploitative and shallow, and primitive cultures which seemed happiest when far removed from contact, could be read as a critique of colonialism and cultural imperialism. But I don't think that Schroeder's intent is so political; he is more interested in the philosophical question of how we should live, and in particular, whether the path of Western consumerism and matrimony is a dead end as far as fulfilment is concerned.

For a long French film with an intellectual agenda, there is, in fact, remarkably little talking, let alone debate. Vivian's transformation is one of actions, not words. As ever with hippy films, the case for free love is unconvincingly made - here it appears to mean the freedom for women to spend time with a variety of selfish, lazy, pompous, arrogant, and sexist men (as someone once observed, free love was a godsend to ugly men because it made not sleeping with them seem uncool). But then, all of the hippies are shallow and feckless, keen on drugs, hugs and sex but little else; their intrinsic moral superiority to the colonial whites is pretty marginal. Unfortunately, the negative aspects of native culture are largely ignored, suggesting that moving closer to primitivism is a good thing, although, as one character says, they are just tourists, its lying to pretend you can fit in.

Not seeing the valley at the end frustrated some viewers, but unreasonably, I think. But this results from the more legitimate criticism, that having implied that modern and ancient culture and religion was lacking, there is no hint of what Schroeder feels should be put in their place.

So it's a bit boring. Any time Bulle is off-screen it drags; the plot is very literal, even if the filming is sumptuous. Perhaps the single biggest criticism is the poor use of the Pink Floyd soundtrack - apart from the credit sequences, most are used only in short segments, and they feel very much as an extraneous element to the film.

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