I rarely begin a review with a direct quote, but I thought it was important to include this quote from a 1971 interview with “La Vallee” director, Barbet Schroeder, conducted by famed French director, Bertrand Tavernier in understanding our director’s intentions for his film: “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.”
The early 1970s were rife with films depicting this return to the “bosom of nature” as Schroeder stated about his film, “La Vallee,” with many being forced into pastoral exile as seen by Jim McBride’s superb 1971 post-apocalyptic tale, “Glen and Randa,” Nicolas Roeg’s violently abandoned school children negotiating the outback in “Walkabout,” or Mark the radical and Daria the free spirit in Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point.” The time seemed to be right for abandonment of all things urban in favor of a Utopian or at least survivable natural experience that stemmed from the fear of a never-ending Cold War. That hunger for a utopia is very much the mission for our band of hippies in “La Vallee,” Barbet Schroeder’s almost distractedly beautiful 1971 film.
Viviane (Bulle Ogier) is in New Guinea purchasing exotic feathers for a shop in Paris. She is a gorgeous, well to do but bored wife of a French diplomat from Melbourne. She is being sold on some overpriced feathers and faux native trinkets at a trading post when she meets the beefy hippyish Oliver (Michael Gothard who played the most zealous priest that same year in Ken Russell’s The Devils). Olivier throws some wild boasts and the promises of more feathers to our uptight Viviane and eventually persuades her to visit his band of traveling freaks during the expedition into the jungles of New Guinea. Olivier shows Viviane his collection of rare feathers (the jungle version of etchings I suppose) but refuses to sell her any of them. No, if Viviane wants her precious feathers, she needs to join his band of freaks and find them them herself but not before a bit of the old in and out (sorry that’s a different 1971 film). I guess that a trip to utopia to gain a higher consciousness must first have a stop through Olivier’s pants. Such is hippydom I suppose…
At the camp, Viviane meets Olivier’s band of explorers, including the fiercely primal Gaetan, played by Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Ogier’s co-star in Jacques Rivette’s “L’Amour Fou,” a brilliant film that fosters the discussion about the relations between film and theater and even theater and theatrical aspects of reality, which culminates with Ogier and Kalfon turning their chic Paris apartment into a scene of primal expressionism. Watching the interactions between Viviane and Gaetan in “La Vallee” is an almost follow up of their characters from “L’ Amour Fou” if Ogier never left Paris and is meeting Kalfon whom she forced into such into a state of base behavior two years earlier. Soon, Viviane and her new friends are on the road with the promise of spiritual enlightenment in an uncharted valley, which sets up the plot with the potential of Viviane undergoing a transformation and finding herself in the wilderness. This is soon sidetracked when Viviane meets a native, who she is told will not sell feathers but will give them away to people whom he likes. Viviane makes no real connection to the native, except for a very western attempt to use her beauty to influence him, which bizarrely works in her favor. It is clear at this point that if a transformation is to occur within Viviane, it is to take place slowly or through some moment of dire circumstances. Viviane makes some attempts at connecting with nature, even at one point wrapping a serpent around her neck, much to the dismay of Olivier, but soon after Olivier makes it with another woman within the group, and it’s back to the jealousies and insecurities of the western world for Viviane.
Whilst continuing their travels towards the titular valley, our group stumbles upon a the Mapugas tribe and takes part in their rituals, shot in an almost documentary style that seems detached from the subdued Sierra Club visual storytelling which is the predominance of the “La Vallee.” Though Schroeder attempts to remove all gratuitous hippy folklore from the goings on of his film, there is still the slight air of liberal arts college field trip inherent in our hippies’ interaction with the Mapugas tribe, so much so that one wonders if Viviane is still picturing the chief’s majestic feathers sitting in a display case in some shop near the Eiffel Tower for a back to nature sale. These scenes between our actors and the tribe are of course improvised, and with that, there seems to be a natural disconnect as the over-reverence that the actors clearly possess in trying to relate to the tribe encumbers what should be a more of a transformative moment for their characters. Too many smiles from Viviane and company amidst the hog butchering and face painting take away from what should be a state of bewilderment. Was this Schroeder’s final goal: To show that these westerners/hippies could never truly immerse themselves into this wild frontier after all? Their subsequent journey to the mythical or symbolic valley would indicate that Schroeder thought otherwise in that a potential state of enlightenment was there for them at the end.
Perhaps it is my own western biases coming into play here, but like Roeg’s “Walkabout” I sometimes have to check myself to see if I am I am seeing the transformation of the urban being into a less complicated part of nature, or am I just watching a gorgeously filmed bit of environmental porn to overindulge in for two hours. “La Vallee” was shot by Eric Rohmer/Terence Malick’s cinematographer, Nestor Almendros, who does a brilliant job at capturing the landscapes, but he does keep the proceedings quite stoic, which again would indicate that Schroeder would want to infer that our group of free form travelers is forever locked into their western reality. Also the much heralded original Pink Floyd soundtrack that is less Syd Barrett era psych, and more sitting in your bedroom, staring at the gatefold cover while on shrooms Roger Waters style, goes even further in keeping the viewer from a totally immersive experience.
Original trailer for La Vallee
In the aforementioned interview with Schroeder from 1971, the director viewed the hippies as “the only contemporary movement which has produced a lunatic fringe filled with a spirit of adventure,” and “La Vallee” does make it clear that the spirit of adventure was very much alive with this collection of hippies, but perhaps that adventure had an emotional glass ceiling that was located in a small apartment somewhere in the 1st Arrondissement in Paris.