This is a review of Barbet Schroeder’s 1972 French film, “The Valley,” also known as “La Vallée” and as “Obscured by Clouds,” and is known for its Pink Floyd soundtrack.

This review reveals elements of the plot.

If there’s one thing you can tell about a movie with really engaging drug scenes, it’s that the director or writer does a lot of drugs; hence, he or she is adept at conveying the druggy experience in a satisfying, engaging, perhaps sympathetic way. If the drug scenes are the  best thing about a movie, it’s safe to say the director didn’t have much more experience or vision to offer. Or, because of a warped perspective, he or she was incapable of conveying it.

In “More,” the other Barbet Schroeder movie I saw, the director prevents any connection or sympathy with his characters until they are as messed up on drugs as they could possibly be.

Here, he offers a BIT more character besides shallow desperation.  A French woman, Vivian, seeks exotic feathers for sale in her Paris boutique. Joining up with a group of young societal dropouts, they seek a mythical valley in New Guinea, on the part of the map labeled “Obscured By Cloud,” (sic), which they believe contains Paradise. Vivian starts out towards The Valley in hope of finding her feathers, but soon rejects her prim, upright, materialistic, bored and married Western persona in favor of reverting to Earth worship among the trees and native tribes. After a short stay in a native village, she and the group attempt to “go native.”

This scene is difficult to analyze because it contains both the film’s message—conveyed in the only well-written piece of dialogue—and graphic depictions of tribal life—such as smashing the skulls of living pigs for a ceremonial feast. It’s difficult to watch, and makes it difficult to absorb or appreciate the valid idea the director wants to convey. It is almost like Schroeder doesn’t really even care if the message (or any message) is conveyed—it is more “included” than emphasized or studied.  Above and beyond creating characters with near-illusory moral fiber, Schroeder clearly enjoys shocking and frightening his audience by subjecting them to documentary footage when everyone in the theater came to see a fiction movie. I don’t think this is a slur on the audience’s intelligence; it speaks more of Schroeder’s vision as a storyteller and as a director.

Without a doubt, this movie benefits over “More” due to the striking photography and lush New Guinean locales, so its greatest strength is also its greatest and most debilitating weakness. Besides the poor acting, forgettable plot, wasted Pink Floyd score, and largely exploitative nature, it loses all didactic credibility because its message is so painfully lost in what is essentially a National Geographic film about native tribes, disguised as a countercultural story about hip kids dropping out of society.

As I mentioned, the best-scripted and most moving scene is where the tall blond guy is sitting with Vivian, watching Gaetan and that other woman among the natives, and explaining to her that one can’t escape one’s conditioning, that among any society, there are rules and oppression, that exploitation of women is even worse in other places, and that true freedom is an illusion.  In a few terse sentences, in pleasant, philosophical French, and with a cinematically despondent stare on his face, the blond guy conveys the theme and message of the movie. But, laid plain within this tribal setting, that valid, interesting message is lost.

It’s a shame, because it’s a good message, very apropos of the time the movie was made. If Schroeder had focused on it, and created a movie to explore it, “La Vallee” would have succeeded.

After this scene, with 19 minutes left in the movie, the characters resume their quest for “The Valley.” The twist is, when the characters actually reach it, right before starving to death in the wilderness, it becomes obvious the Valley itself is an imagined paradise realm. The ideal world they sought is imagined, or rather, nonexistent, perhaps an internal world, unreachable through simple escape from Western society, perhaps unreachable in any way.

Again, a decent theme, lost in a fog, Obscured by Cloud, like The Valley itself. As with “More,” I am forced to ask if the titular/thematic pun might be intentional, part of the idea of the movie, to stand for and convey the exact phenomenon that proves the message of the film to be valid. Or something. The drug scenes being among the strongest in the movie suggests that it is indeed part of the idea. I feel it was misguided. With a bit more sobriety or perspective, vision or strength, Schroeder would have had a good movie. Maybe two.

I felt that “More” was pretty describable as “Breathless” on drugs. I would describe “The Valley” as Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” similarly on drugs. The plot and appearance and some part of the message of the movie are extremely reminiscent of that film, which came out the same year.

I was attracted to both of these films because of their Pink Floyd scores. As it is, I cannot recommend “More” or “La Vallee” to anyone in good conscience, except those who are interested in Pink Floyd, or in how not to make a movie. In any case, if you see it, do yourself a favor: be sober.

 

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