The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) (Barbet Schroeder, France, 1972)

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Some imposingly desolate and rugged mountain scenery opens this story of a group of young people’s spiritual quest for a remote valley in Papua New Guinea. You think the location is being established impressively well. But then the mist clears a little, and it seems like maybe it’s the Scottish Highlands after all. Obscured by Clouds is literally what this “lost” valley is called on the map. (It reminds me of the time I spent weeks trying to get in to a website called 403 Forbidden – with a saucy name like that it’s no wonder they went to such lengths to protect it.) Here’s one of the problems already; the locations just don’t come across on screen as hostile and dangerous enough. I was going to call it a credibility gap, but how about “intrepidity gap”. Some of us have been on more perilous journeys and still been back in time for our teas.

Viviane (Bulle Ogier) is a bored diplomat’s wife left to fill her days browsing the bric-a-brac stalls for native arts and crafts. One day she bumps into Olivier (Michael Gothard) and he shows her some feathers from an exotic bird of paradise. She joins him and his band of hippie travellers in a search for the hidden valley where the bird is said to live. Will the feathers, and thus the quest itself, turn out to be a metaphor for a journey of self-discovery? Let’s hope not, I can never get my head around things like that.

Not much that is unpredicatble happens. Viviane may be a diplomat’s wife, but first and foremost she is a Frenchwoman. Thus she falls into bed with Olivier the very day they meet. Then off they head into the mountains, and they all take part in a tribal festival; rather coyly unfortunately – one of the girls takes her top off, but Viviane remains disappointingly clothed. Things look like they are about to take a turn for the better when she takes deep draughts of a native shaman’s potion. That stuff isn’t known for making people act more sensibly. Will she check her credit card statements, and wonder aloud whether she’s paying too much for home insurance? I don’t think so! But actually it just makes her act a little bit wet.

La vallée is amateurishly made. It neglects simple things like establishing the core characters, and tends to film in medium shot without interleaving close-ups. Scenes sometimes come to an end before they’ve barely even started, leaving what they were trying to establish something of a mystery. All this acts against any sort of involvement with the characters, who seem irredeemably dull anyway.

Of course this is not an attempt to tell a story of riproaring adventure with heart-stopping incidents along the way. It meditates on how the view of the tourist is literally a world apart from that of the native, who has to take the good with the bad parts of their way of life, and can’t leave it all behind once the fortnight is over. But I knew that already. Even people back in the ‘seventies knew that already.

The ending, again predictably, is open but downbeat (cf. The Holy Mountain (1973)). This film is one part of a nihilist cinematic journey that would end the decade with Cannibal Holocaust.

The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) clip with Bulle Ogier

Bulle Ogier in The Valley Bulle Ogier in The Valley

The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) clip with Valérie Lagrange

Valérie Lagrange in The Valley Valérie Lagrange in The Valley

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/5

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