Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Childhood's end? La Vallée - Obscured by Clouds (1972)

Amidst our on-going fascination with the 1960’s remains the fact that, in many key cultural respects, the “period” never stopped and is with us now.

The 60’s was the first time when the chance to “do as thou wilt” was available to a relatively mass market and this cultural Pandora’s Box has never been closed, just monetised. The freedoms and social mobility of the time are still present but are commoditised, stripped of their pioneering spirit and political context in an age when self expression is taken as a right.

This much is clear when watching La Vallée (Obscured by Clouds), a seemingly quintessential “hippie” movie made by Barbet Schroeder in 1972, sometime after the scene had soured in the US and UK – the French were always less transiently trendy… Yet all is not as it appears.

The film is about a group of young “drop-out” travellers who have come to find a lost valley in New Guinea, funded by the inheritance of their leader, Gaetan (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). This part of the island is unexplored and literally obscured by permanent cloud cover.

The group is well meaning and at pains to make this journey a voyage of spiritual discovery as much as an eco-vacational novelty. The other man in the group, Oliver (Michael Gothard) is more wary and, as things unfold, we see his worldliness and disappointment rise to the fore. They are accompanied by two women and a child…a mini commune sharing each other and “free love”.

Into this group comes a French diplomat’s wife, Viviane (Bulle Ogier), who is on vacation and looking to pick up cultural trinkets for re-sale back home. She meets Oliver in a trader’s shop and becomes fascinated with a rare feather he has.

Her quest for such exotica leads her to join the group as they head onto their destination. Never intending to go the whole way, Viviane is sucked into the group mentality initially through greed, hallucinatory sex and her own curiosity.

The party meets with one of the local tribes in a sequence that feels more than half-documentary. This section with the Mapuga tribe is fascinating, with the tribe preparing themselves and some of the actors for a feast. Amazing costumes, elaborate, richly-coloured face painting and singing accompanies this. They kill pigs in ritual, inhumane ways and the considerable gap in cultural outlook is revealed – I couldn’t watch the slaughter.

Viviane and Gaetan embrace this but Oliver has seen nothing but his own fall from grace reflected back: “Once you have tasted Adam’s apple there is no way back….you cannot recover the lost innocence…” Michael Gothard is a supremely unsettled presence as per usual, he manages to convey a deep insecurity whilst at the same time being confident and facing up to things. Brave I suppose.

His Oliver cannot make the final step of the spiritual journey but continues with the group even though, as he says to Gaetan, “…we're not going to get out of this”. Does this mean physically or figuratively?

The group press on, with Viviane and Gaetan convinced that they are ready to find themselves in the lost valley…

Compared with Gothard, Bulle Ogier is a closed book. She is less expressive and carries a lot of emotion within her acting and slides from self-centred to wide-eyed acceptance over the course of the film. I’m not sure how judgemental Schroeder was being but she carries blame for abandoning herself to being the tourist. Does she ever really open up?

I should also mention the soundtrack… having previously worked with them on More back in 1969, Schroeder chose Pink Floyd to accompany his film. Aside from the opening theme and the closing moments their music is heard only in snatches, mostly on the travellers’ cassette player.
Schroeder felt the travellers where the kind of people who listened to Le Pink Floyd. Never-the-less, the group were always outside the hippy mainstream and, as some of the lyrics and song titles suggest, were cynical enough not to believe in the nirvana of primitivism. Which is just what the director was looking for.

I had their soundtrack LP as a teen and it always stood out as one of their more immediate works having been knocked off very quickly during their mammoth “Dark Side…” sessions and, benefiting from this. They were still functioning as a collaborative band at this stage and there are some decent tunes on show, not least the main theme which showcases Rick Wright’s brand new synth to splendid effect.

This is not a great film but it is a very interesting one. It’d be lazy to say “of its time” (it always is) especially in an age when the young have broadened their range of travelling in “gap” years and when there are “tour companies” offering the more adventurous “first contact” holidays in which to meet the few isolated tribes that remain in New Guinea, South America and elsewhere. (If you don’t believe me, check out this frankly shocking BBC documentary on YouTube.)

Our need to explore remains and the moral justification for doing so remain conflicted, just like the characters in the film. Schroeder knew enough to be cynical even if his choice of location was driven by the same adventurous spirit as his characters.

In an interview given at the time, he talked about the impact of western civilisation on these people who would have no real time to adjust and whose cultures would dilute and dissipate following contact.

If you look at Papua New Guinea on Google Earth there are still plenty of valleys obscured by clouds and maybe that’s the way they should stay.

The BFI have done this film proud and released it on dual format with an extensive booklet on the film actors and the music. It’s available from their shop and all of the usual places.

1 comment:

  1. Facinating piece youve written here. I've been a lifelong fan of Pink Floyd music, and often thought Obscured By Clouds stood out as some of their best work. At 56 years of age, I'm stunned to find that this album was produced with a movie soundtrack. While the tribal chants of the Mapuga would seem exploitive if done be many other musicians of the era, I find it blends perfectly with the sentiment of the overall collection of songs on OBC. Reminiscent of the soccer game chanting during Fearless, from the Pink Floyd album Meddle, which I believe was the next in line release after OBC. Cheers! --Gomek

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