The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) Review
Barbet Schroeder's second feature film The Valley, or La vallée and often with Obscured by Clouds added in parenthesis to draw connection to the Pink Floyd soundtrack album of the same name, is not a particularly pleasant film to consider. On the one hand it presents Western interference into unexplored habitats as driven by selfishness and doomed by a sense of naive, hippie-inflected shortsightedness. On another it puts the idea of "paradise" as something thought to be found only as an exotic unknown. There's an intrusive nature to the actions of the main characters, who nonetheless mostly have pure intentions but seemingly fail to grasp the full implications of their journey into a land and culture not their own. Schroeder subtly frames his film as a criticism of such oblivious actions, but he does so without the clarity or the conviction often needed.
The lead character, and the most Western figure, in The Valley is Bulle Ogier's Vivian. She's the French wife of a diplomat living in Australia. In Papua New Guinea, she wants to purchase exotic feathers to then sell when she's back in Australia. The idea of removing something from nature that ideally shouldn't belong to anyone and then smuggling it to a culture where people will pay significant amounts of money to use the items as decoration and the like does not seem to be of any concern to Vivian. Schroeder's casting of the beautiful and blonde Ogier, who'd later rejoin the director in Maîtresse and also become his wife, serves as a perfect contrast against the tribal natives seen in the film. Ogier can't help but look out of place in such a setting and her character's frequent desire to view her surroundings as commodities would seem to fall somewhere between a jab and an indictment by Schroeder. It's worth noting that the director, born to a Swiss father and a German mother, had a history of varied geographic association, having been born in Iran, spending his childhood in Africa and Colombia and settling in France, where he produced films for Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette as a young adult.
The character of Vivian meets up with Olivier (Michael Gothard) early in the film, and, in one of the more strange seduction maneuvers I can recall, he lures her back to his tent with the promise of showing off his feather collection. Olivier is a traveler in the same hippie-scented group as Gaeton (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) and the largely nondescript Hermine and Monique and young boy Yann. They intend to venture into the unknown, a place they call the valley and described on the map as being obscured by clouds. It is their presumed paradise and requires a rather arduous journey involving two weeks by jeep and additional travel by horse and foot to reach the site. No one has ever entered and returned. Could that be due to a lack of desire to leave the area, or is it perhaps a more ominous consequence of the difficulty involved in getting there?
Schroeder in no way positions his film as a tingly horror type but you can see the narrative potential for that. Instead, The Valley opts for an engrossing, if bordering on lethargic and/or disjointed, approach into semi-documentary terrain. Not only does the film decline to answer questions about the impact of colonialism and general plundering of nature by Westerners, it barely even asks them. Vivian defies a pair of hunters who've killed a beautiful bird of paradise but it remains unclear whether this represents a change of heart or if she's simply so clueless as to not realize the feathers she's been coveting have a similarly trophy-oriented aspect. When the same men cross her path again she eventually trades the remainder of her money for the horses she and the others need to continue, an act that shows none of the cleansing effect it probably should. Had Vivian's awakening been facilitated by something other than a mind-altering substance her actions also might be easier to appreciate and accept as sincere. It's unfortunate that the film can be (too) neatly summed up as concerning a wealthy white tourist who wants to buy feathers, finds a hippie group, slides into bed with one of them, drinks a drug-laced liquid and joins the cause.
The Valley is indeed more than that, and despite often being vague with his intentions, Schroeder seems to emphasize the inevitable emptiness his characters face from which they cannot escape. As Olivier says at one point following a visit with a native tribe, they are still little more than tourists and what they see is not and cannot be their way of life. The final extension into the cloud-covered area undetailed on the map is not depicted as anything much beyond straightforward continuation. If it's a criticism of the hippie culture, and Schroeder confirms as much in an interview found in the BFI's booklet, the message is flat and unhelpful. The film succeeds more strongly as a general view on outsiders who approach others' native lands with the intention of altering it, either by addition or subtraction, in some way. The hippie part should act as a front for any number of invasive and shallow members of "civilized" society.
And it certainly does provide an excellent excuse for what are perhaps the two most intriguing aspects of Schroeder's film. The Pink Floyd soundtrack has ensured it some continued interest that seems unlikely to wane any time soon. The rock band had also provided music for More, Schroeder's debut feature. The songs heard in The Valley are hardly extensive, playing over the opening and closing of the film and with snippets also heard in the tent and automobile of the hippies. Schroeder mentioned that the idea was to have Pink Floyd's music play because it was the sort of thing those characters would listen to, so the songs emerge at times when they would be playing them. Distinguished, too, is the wonderful cinematography of Nestor Almendros. Aside from the deep sense of place that came with filming in Papua New Guinea, the camera's documentary-like approach to a scene like the interaction with the Mapuga tribe lends a strong feeling of realism that makes the main characters' actions seem all the more worth questioning. Barbet Schroeder's next film after The Valley was his "autoportrait" General Idi Amin Dada, also shot by Almendros. The visual feel of the two pictures is not dissimilar, and there are even moments when the former somehow feels more authentic than the latter. A brutal animal slaughter in The Valley is probably as vicious if not more so than anything captured on film in the documentary.
The BFI's Dual Format release of The Valley contains a region-free Blu-ray, a PAL DVD, and a 26-page booklet. Both discs are dual-layered and the transfers are progressive.
The booklet helpfully informs us that the film was "transferred in High Definition from the original 35mm Techniscope negative" and subsequently restored, with director Barbet Schroeder supervising and approving the new transfer. The wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio used by the film is respected here. Strong grain levels, which vary from time to time, stand out in the image. Most striking are how gorgeous the colors often look, particularly in the face painting scenes with the Mapuga Tribe. The frequent use of natural greens in Nestor Almendros' cinematography layers the film in atmosphere, and has been reproduced wonderfully by the BFI. There's no damage at all to be seen. Detail and sharpness, as well as contrast, are more than adequate for the format, though perhaps limited by how the movie was shot. The included DVD shares a few strengths with the BD but is no match for the smoothness and increased clarity of 1080p. There's a decent standard definition release of The Valley available in the U.S. from the now defunct Home Vision Entertainment label but it's now improved significantly on by the BFI's new edition.
The mono audio was transferred from the original magnetic tracks and sounds just terrific. It's a PCM mono track mostly in French, but with occasional English spoken. Dialogue is clear and crisp, though what really makes the audio come alive are the enveloping sounds of nature that can be heard. The full and rich sounds are quite impressive. Pink Floyd's musical contribution is emphasized only at the very beginning and end of the film, with excerpts from other songs played at points along the way. The opening and closing tracks flow through the two channels boldly while the rest of the music used has a more incidental sound. DVD listeners will make do with a still solid Dolby Digital mono track. English subtitles, white in color, are optional, and they extend to the lower black portion of the screen rather than remaining only in the frame.
A tiny alteration to the film by Schroeder makes for what is only arguably an extra feature. This concerns the film's ending. On the Blu-ray, upon initiating the option to play the movie, you're given the choice of either the original unrestored ending or the digitally restored one. The DVD only shows the latter but has a separate way to see the original ending (1:59) on its own (which cannot be done on the Blu-ray; one has to restart the film and advance manually to the end). It's necessary to report that the differences in these two endings are extremely subtle, and only concern a lighting effect. The booklet instructs that the "director-approved 'optical effect' ending was produced digitally using the original 35mm Techniscope negative" and the "original 'optical effect' ending was transferred from a 35mm print."
More salient bonus material can be found in the form of what are described as three "ethnographic documentary shorts" directed by Schroeder that are companion pieces to the feature. These are "Le cochon aux patates douces" (8:20), about the Mapuga tribe's feast of pigs with sweet potatoes, "Maquillages" (11:59), which looks at the ceremonial make-up worn by the tribe, and "Sing Sing" (5:15), a brief glance at the tribal ceremony of the title. All are from 1971, in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and have infrequent French narration with optional English subtitles. "Le cochon aux patates douces" shows the violent killing of pigs and its bloody aftermath.
Also on both discs are theatrical trailers for Schroeder's features More (2:51), Maîtresse (2:02) and The Valley (3:41). All of these supplements are in HD on the Blu-ray.
A first class booklet numbering 26 pages is another in a long line of excellent inserts produced by the BFI. This has some particularly interesting and informative pieces in it that do well to provide some context for what we've seen, plus it has a gorgeous cover. An insightful essay by Emilie Bickerton on the film runs 6 pages and Bickerton also has an interview with Barbet Schroeder that goes another 4 pages. A piece written by Rob Young that covers the use of Pink Floyd's music in this film and also in Schroeder's More lasts 3 pages. Brief biographies on actors Michael Gothard and Bulle Ogier finish up the writings at 3 pages apiece. Transfer information, credit lists, and stills attractively fill out the remainder of the BFI's satisfying booklet.