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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L’Alliance (Christian de Chalonge, France, 1971)

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The wedding of the title is so perfunctory you are left uncertain that such a thing has actually taken place. Was it even consummated? It’s not like a French film to leave you in the dark about something like that. Hugues had advertised for a bride via an agency. “Shy vet seeks young beauty with rambling old house containing mysterious locked room”, he wrote, “please send photo of mysterious locked room”. Or at least if he had done he would have saved me a certain amount of exposition.

The young beauty who answers in the positive is Jeanne (Anna Karina). Surely there must be a catch in this? The house is musty and decrepit as only a locked-up town house can be. Putting aside any nagging doubts he may have over what happened to all the other shy young men who went before him and what she did with the bones, Hugues sets about renovating the place and turning it into a modern veterinary surgery.

They make a very dull household; just husband, wife, and housekeeper – and little to look forward to at bedtime either. At first Jeanne seems to be the sinister presence, with her mysterious shopping expeditions, and the vanishing chemical supplies. “What’s happened to all my ether?” – not a question you ever want to ask of your wife. Eventually we suspect that Hugues may be the odd one.

Initially this film shares much of the same atmosphere of the contemporary Le seuil du vide. The black-clad greying old matrons who bring increasingly exotic pets in for consultation are a peculiarly French thing. But the sinister shadow of the past is slowly replaced with the menacing trappings of a scientific age as Hugues gradually installs modern lighting and decor; a research laboratory follows. The animals that inhabit the cages around the walls become more bizarre. Not exactly dangerous, but forbiddingly strange. The housekeeper is the first to crack: “J’ai peur des animaux” she says before leaving. But what of Jeanne?

An absorbing curiosity, a little pretentious maybe, but with an original atmosphere and a notably peculiar ending.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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“L’Alliance” “The Wedding Ring” “Anna Karina” “Christian de Chalonge”
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Le seuil du vide (Jean-François Davy, France, 1972)

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What’s the single most boring way you can start a film? With an airliner taking off probably. (Remember the Jet Age?) That keynote of ‘sixties and ‘seventies glamour familiar from countless formulaic thrillers is enough to provoke a groan of despair. But the focus immediately pulls back to the foreground to show a young woman watching it depart. Short haired, handsome but a little gaunt, she seems to have been crying. Why has she been left behind? The cliché has worked for once; I want to know her story.

Putting aside her past for now, Wanda (Dominique Erlanger) on the spur of the moment takes a train to Paris. Already on the journey, independent and confident though she may be, she is feeling hints of alienation from the passengers packing her in to the threadbare compartment. Her most pressing worries are solved when a kindly old lady offers her a room; shabby it may be, but it’s cheap. Wanda, a painter, could be thirty but is part of the perpetual student class endemic to Paris. The black-clad old lady is a shadow of a bygone age. Nevertheless the two become close, the younger woman reminding her landlady of her youth. But she must promise to never, ever, no matter what, open the mysterious door in her room with the rusty lock. (Seriously folks, don’t open those kind of doors; you’ll have nothing but trouble.)

This is a story of a young woman’s alienation and breakdown, of shifting identities, of present times and lost times, and maybe of evil outside forces. This genre was especially common at the time, though of course can be traced back to The Yellow Wallpaper and beyond. The most obvious comparisons are from Roman Polanski (Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976)), amongst many others such as Larraz’s Symptoms (1974). Threshhold of the Void stands up quite strongly against them.

It picks up well on the particular loneliness of rooms at night in a strange city, the unfamiliar creaks from inside and the traffic noises from outside, the rare human voices becoming lost amongst them. The camera is used skillfully, and the art direction is sometimes uniquely beautiful and sinister. A weak point is a lack of range from the lead; she’s unconvincing once she has to go beyond the rather assured and distant persona of the earlier parts of the film. A good example of a rare genre, the French horror film.

 


Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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La Valise (Georges Lautner, France, 1973)

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Mireille Darc was almost as familiar a sight to late-night British TV viewers of the ‘eighties as she was to French cinema audiences of the ‘seventies, thanks to a preference of the minor channels for filling the late-night schedules with sexy comedies and lightweight thrillers usually, but not always, starring herself and Alain Delon. Sometimes she took her clothes off, usually not very many, and always in the best possible taste. She was the epitome of a particular sort of third-hand dark-at-the-roots blonde sophistication, coupled with a hint of girlish naïveté. Only the French could pull off a mixture like that.

In The Suitcase she plays Françoise, a conjuror’s assistant who somehow gets mixed up in a plot to smuggle a French agent out of Libya in the diplomatic bag, more specifically the unwieldly trunk of the title. This being a time of perpetual conflict in the Middle East many difficulties arise, and not just the fact that he’s one hell of a bloke to fit in a suitcase, even a big one like that.

Françoise has a secret weapon: she can make absolutely anyone fall in love with her. Effortlessly. Not just the obvious ones like the agent and his buddy, but random strangers in the middle of deserts. The ending is almost transcendent: she wins over the bad guy by smiling at him. A simple smile, without lip-gloss, confident with just a hint of vulnerability. It’s not the lure of the bedroom, more a promise from the school playground; not “Let’s make love” but “Will you be my friend?”. Completely irresistible. It’s an interesting concept to mull over afterwards: French tart as Ambassadress of World Peace. You never know, it might just work! Actually it might just have happened already!

As a whole this film is short of action and rather dated to be of much interest today. The opening scenes where a Western gunfight turns out to be playing out on a TV set whose aerial is being kicked over by the French agent on the roof seems unfunny and not a bit crass, but maybe it was fresh enough to make good comedy back then. No more than a diversion then, except for devotees of Mademoiselle Darc of course.



Clip: Mireille Darc nude at the window (12.0MB)

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

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Tusk (Alejandro Jodorowsky, France, 1980)

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Tusk-f07000333-001The most obscure of features from cult filmmaker Jodorowsky, it was never even released hence the terrible home-taped copy that is the best that is circulating. In mid-20th century India a girl and a male elephant are born at the same moment. They are to share a special bond as Elise (Cyrielle Clair), the daughter of the local colonial baron grows to independent womanhood and Tusk the maverick bull breaks loose from the bondage of its human slavedrivers.

Tusk-f07000333-002That’s about it plotwise, which is probably the reason for the abuse this at times terrific film tends to receive at the hands of those so-called cinéastes who are happy to hold the strangest opinions as long as they seem to be going along with the in-crowd.

Tusk-f07000333-003Actually there is a bit more to the story, but it’s the purest melodrama. One evening Elise appears at her father’s party in a sari, provoking the least concerted attempt to discipline a rebellious daughter I’ve ever seen; he tells her twice to go and change before capitulating for good! There’s a young American elephant hunter for Elise to have a love-hate relationship with, and some drunken poachers like the ones in those old Tarzan flicks. All-in-all the motivation for these characters’ interactions is to put it politely very poor.

Tusk-f07000333-005What matters is the cinematography which is magnificent. The opening panning scenes establishing the way of life of the impoverished villagers and the importance of the working elephants to them is a tremendous piece of mise en scène, not just visually thrilling but functional too. And the soundtrack, jazzy and electronic riffs on native music building sometimes to a wall of sound, complements the images amazingly well.

Tusk-f07000333-004There are many striking scenes to follow, but as the film goes on the quality gets more uneven. The clowning drunks begin to grate, and the plot holes become more noticable. Why would the local Maharaja offer a fortune for the capture of an elephant for instance? What’s the use of it? And the fact that everyone is speaking French doesn’t help at all. But all things taken into account Tusk is a rare piece of pure cinema.


Tusk-f07000333-008 Tusk-f07000333-006 Tusk-f07000333-007

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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Flammes (Adolfo Arrieta, France, 1978)

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Flammes-f73095556-001When she was a little girl Barbara (Caroline Loeb) dreamt a fireman was climbing into her room. Nowadays she’s a teenager and hanging around the local fire station, making false alarm calls (complete with breathless sound effects) from the family home.

Flammes-f73095556-002This everyday fantasy about French adolescent growing pains is not as scandalous as it sounds (though there’s a governess with sapphic inclinations in the mix as well). It has an awful lot in common with the obscure gem Au rendez-vous de la mort joyeuse (1974), from the small country château setting to the girl-becoming-woman theme. Unfortunately it also suffers from that film’s faults, namely lack of budget, and clunkiness in everything from acting to use of the camera. But there is at least one magnificent cinematic moment when Barbara appears in evening dress at the top of the staircase during a family dinner party.

Flammes-f73095556-003This is a wordy film and hard to judge fairly from the visuals alone without being able to follow the script, but it does seem to be yet another example of the lazy pretension endemic in French cinema of the era.



Flammes-f73095556-004 Flammes-f73095556-005 Flammes-f73095556-006

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

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