Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Cinema Strange #7. The Valley (La vallée) (Barbet Schroeder, 1972)

Viviane (Bulle Ogier) embarks upon a journey in La vallée (1972)

Although their most famous contribution to cinema may be 1982's The Wall (Alan Parker), my favorite Pink Floyd work is still the score they contributed to Barbet Schroeder's underrated voyage into paradise, La vallée. An array of mystical space-like sounds and echoing vocals, the score would later be re-shaped into the bands seventh and most underrated studio album Obscured By Clouds (1972). A track on that album, Burning Bridges, contains the lyrics:

Ancient bonds are breaking,
Moving on and changing sides.
Dreaming of a new day,
Cast aside the other way.
Magic visions stirring,
Kindled by and burning flames rise in her eyes.

In many ways those lyrics sum up the journey undertaken by Viviane (Bulle Ogier), a French Consul's wife who finds herself in New Guinea searching for rare exotic feathers to trade back home in Paris. Along the way she encounters a group of travelers seeking paradise in la vallée - a place high in the mountains, obscured by clouds, whose spellbinding beauty is said to be so powerful that all who have ventured there have never returned. Viviane joins the group in search of feathers but soon becomes stranded and falls into her own spiritual rapture, forever entwined with the voyagers she has taken up with.

Although Schroeder remains an underrated presence in world cinema the real unsung hero of La vallée is master cinematographer Néstor Almendros, whose attention to natural beauty and the rich greens of paradise are always beautiful. It's much the same as his work on Le genou de Claire (Eric Rohmer, 1970), which is one of the most sumptuous visual portrayals of Summer I've ever seen, but it never feels false or manipulative; the greens and yellows underscore the action and provide a resplendent backdrop. Also remember his work on Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), with the crisp seasonal shades evoking an autumn of discovery, with the yellow/orange shades adding to the warmth of the growing father/son relationship without ever explicitly force-feeding images of aesthetic beauty that overtake the substance of the film, or the human relationships.

Much like Schroeder's previous feature, 1969's More (also featuring a Pink Floyd soundtrack), La vallée is a film about self-discovery and destruction - in that film it was through chemical intoxication whereas this film is a spiritual voyage into the natural wilderness. This is why Almendros' cinematography is so brilliant and important. It would have been all too easy to over-shoot paradise as a spiritual utopia but Almendros has the sense to let the lush surroundings speak for themselves. The way his shots are framed and the way in which he employs colour and lighting are not objective - they do not tell of paradise. His visuals simply allow you to be captivated by this world, and to be enraptured by the lifestyle of the tribes the trekkers encounter. This is also why, come the denouement, Olivier's (Michael Gothard) speech about freedoms, the pretentiousness of escape and the self-absorption of pleasure-seeking is all the more poignant. We see the film from Viviane's point of view; we are as new to this journey as she is and her personality - the Westernized consumer who lives by schedule - is instantly relatable. Almendros is documenting her discovery, and ours, and it's to his credit that he doesn't show off when he has the chance, but servers Schroeder's vision and enhances the sensory experience through shots of vast landscapes, rolling mountains and the clouds which obscure them.

For some the discovery may feel a little force-fed and clichéd - it's no surprise that Viviane also finds a sexual awakening with this band of hippies, and scenes of her making love in the woods may border on the comical. It never descends into melodrama or farce though - the combination of photography and music, as well as Schroeder's controlled eye ensure that there is a focus, even if that is a deconstruction of the pursuit of freedoms. The film has surely dated, but the BFI remaster makes it look glorious and some of the previous critical nitpicking (it was not well reviewed upon release) is exposed as exactly that. The film is not a masterpiece, nor is it ahead of its time, but it confronts ideas and truths that an audience in 1972 wasn't quite willing to accept yet, and remains largely misunderstood.

To some the ending is still ambiguous, but the celestial light filtering onto the tired, aching bodies of our protagonists suggests something much more conclusive - that they have found paradise. Their nirvana is in the heavens; no man came back from la vallée because he died in the search for ecstasy. Schroeder himself saw the characters journey as "alienation disguised as liberation" and in cutting themselves off from the (Western) world these spiritual voyagers find what could be the ultimate liberation - the touch of God...

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