Excerpts from a conversation with Barbet Schroeder
by Bertrand Tavernier
Why this film after More (1969)? This film seems also to be a trip.
In one shot of More
, I had The Valley
in mind: we see a chart of the human brain. The areas still unknown to modern science are left blank. The hero comments: "The brain is like a map of Africa: still largely uncharted. It is in these blank spots that the highest functions of reason and creativity take place." At the beginning, The Valley
was the story of a woman's discovery of life and pleasure. But pleasure is a serious thing, full of anguish, which has no ultimate direction but a relationship with death. One must pay for it, one must "leave some feathers". The two films realize a transformation and a journey of characters who try to push themselves to the limit, with all the risks which that involves.
What is your position in relation to the characters?
I am no longer interested in classic heroes; documentaries, reportages, whether ethnologic or not, have taught us to look at individuals in a different way; their intensity of existence and their truth have taken precedence over psychology and "characterization." I make no value judgments of my characters any more than of the natives, and I tried to keep the same distance in filming both, leaving them to develop freely. A caricature would have been too easy. Certain roles did not develop at all. Rather than typing them with a few specific traits, I preferred that they should be like people one encounters in life, whose presence one feels without knowing anything about them, but whom one would like to know.
Why New Guinea? Why this expedition?
Because New Guinea is the last unknown. It is one of the only places on the globe where there still remain some unexplored regions, some blank spots on the map. It is also one of the last places where tribes can be found whose way of life is still close to Upper Neolithic. Only enlightened adventurers, spurred on by the need to seek out their origins, could have undertaken this search for a legendary valley. In another era they would have been mystic peasants, like those in the films of Glauber Rocha.
The hippies are the only contemporary movement which has produced a lunatic fringe filled with a spirit of adventure. I have tried as much as possible to eliminate all gratuitous hippy folklore in order to better describe a certain way of feeling. It would have been senseless to draw from the magnificent characters of the great American adventure stories, from Hawks to Hemingway, from The African Queen
to Green Mansions
, from H. Rider Haggard to Mogambo
. . .
How much is improvisation, and how much is scripted?
Everything concerning the mountain tribe is obviously improvised, and a number of other sequences are partly improvised. In general we always tried to improvise, even within written scenes, but following the established structure scene by scene.
Are you trying to establish a relationship between people who are searching for a kind of primitivism, and the primitives themselves?
No, because there isn't really much, except on the initial, warm, intense level of human beings who meet and, curious about each other, exchange gifts and hospitality. Beyond that, misunderstanding inevitably encroaches between a group which is the product of our industrial society and a tribe in the process of slowly emerging from the Stone Age.
How do you define this film?
All along, I've tried to keep as many meanings as possible, in order to avoid the possibility of leaving the film open to a single definition. What interests me, as John Huston says, "The pleasure of the journey itself rather than the goal." It's up to each individual to decide whether or not he wants to conclude that his dream of returning to the bosom of nature is a sad utopian vision, and a flight from the self and its implications in society.
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Jean-Pierre Kalfon and Bulle Ogier
Review by Michael Wilmington
This review was originally published in The Real Paper, August 4, 1979
Text Copyright ©
The Valley (Obscured by Clouds) (title of the latest American release by French director Barbet Schroeder) occupies one of the blank spots on the map of New Guinea. Centuries have spent themselves, and left it absolutely undisturbed. An arena of mist veils it from passing planes. No one and nothing can be quite sure what those clouds conceal. Blooming greenery, vegetation, luxuriant abundance? Or a bleached dry plain, full of volcanic rock and black earth, and littered with bones? Like all mysteries, the valley has become a symbol. To the European adventurers who seek it, the valley is Paradise. To the primitive tribesmen who live on its fringe, it is death and destruction.
was shot in 1971. It had its European release in the early Seventies (the soundtrack album, composed and performed by Pink Floyd, was a huge British hit in 1972), and so this relatively delayed American release -- some eight years late -- makes the film seem unduly anachronistic: a naïve relic of the mystique of high hippiedom, somehow washed ashore on the strobe-lit, mercantile, Bloomingdales' beaches of 1979. There is a wide-eyed quality, a "naïveté" about its imagery and philosophy. But it's a conscious
naïveté: an attempt to reinstigate a sense of wonder and adventure. Past pioneering, past the virgin land, deep in a primeval wilderness, represents the last mysterious border that can be crossed -- this side of death. Obviously, the Pink Floyd soundtrack summons up refuges from the early Seventies and their various catastrophes and holocausts; it summons up acid dreams, "inner space," sweet oblivion -- escapes in which violence and rage and fear are pushed to such dissonance that they achieve a weird serenity. The Valley
makes better sense, if we see it in perspective, see it to its roots.
"Naïve" it isn't. Schroeder is an extremely cultivated and literate filmmaker. He produces all of Eric Rohmer's films (one can see him playing a major part in the second moral tale, La Boulangere de Monciere
); and, on occasion, Jacques Rivette and Jean Eustache. His own films have been marked by a fascination with the "undersides" of life -- with the "perverse" become normal. They are also marked by an almost withering adventurousness. More
, about drug running, heroin addiction, and hedonistic sex, was filmed in Ibiza, Spain (refuge of master-forger Elmyr de Hory and his Boswell-faker, Clifford Irving), and smuggled out under the noses of the authorities -- who never would have approved the script. Maîtresse
displays the tricks and trades of a French bordello for masochists; with the actual "madam" serving as technical advisor . . . and actual masochists suffering on cue. Schroeder's most famous film, Idi Amin Dada
, is a cold-eyed, unflinching record of a living hell, psychopathology from the inside -- and probably one of the few documentaries made recently in which censorship was exercised under threat of death and torture. In this era of crumbling barriers where almost no taboo seems unbreachable, Schroeder's are among the few films (barring the twilight "outlaw" industry itself) that give off a tremor, a sense of danger by their very descriptions.
All the more interesting, then, that his style is so apparently detached and analytical, that he shows the most curious or decadent or even murderous actions with the cool philosophical serenity of late Rossellini, or that he speaks of the "distance of love" as the happy medium between his subjects and his camera. The Valley
is yet another adventure. It's a pure adventure, an adventure such as Werner Herzog's Aquirre
experienced in the Peruvian jungles, or Buñuel's Robinson Crusoe
on his Mexican isle. Civilization vanishes. Restraint is gone. The protagonists are left with the jungle, with the mystery, with themselves.
And, as in all ethnographic films -- whether they're actual documentaries, like Jacques Cousteau's, or those of the French anthropologist Jean Rouch; mixtures of staged and unstaged footage, like Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North
or Man of Aran
; or wholly re-created, like Rossellini's histories -- the major appeal to the audience lies in the sense of adventure and the unknown, the stimulation of the faculties . . . the sense that we are digging to the roots and wellsprings; that nature and humanity will somehow lie, even partially, naked to our gaze. In fact, The Valley
was shot with a skeleton cast and crew (fifteen in all), in the dense jungles of Papua, New Guniea and on the peak of Mount Gilowe. The very terrain became the adventure; sky and earth and the Mapuga tribesmen determined the course of the film. The story, in this case, centers on the age-old clash of the sophisticated and the primitive -- the "sophisticates" who yearn for the blessedly primal and basic, for raw emotion and "magic"; and the "primitives," rigidly bound by caste, ritual, and tradition, clinging to their culture, and bewitched by the "new."
In Schroeder's movie, the contrast is between a small band of French and European hippies (joined by the wife of the French consul in Melbourne), and the Mapuga tribe of Papua. The background and style of the first group is literary, romantic, urban, and European. Their leader (Jean-Pierre Kalfon of Weekend
) is a messianic Charles Manson type whose philosophical abandon is tinged occasionally with a near-suicidal rush to negation. The French consul's wife (Bulle Ogier of La Salamandre, Celine and Julie go Boating
, and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
-- a superb actress) is a bourgeois aesthete whose primary interests are sexual and acquisitive. She wants feathers from the "bird of paradise." She wants the wings of God clipped and laced, but gradually she becomes even more abandoned and Dionysiac than the leader.
The Mapugas, on the other hand (played by the tribe itself, largely unmanipulated or guided by the filmmakers), are still lodged in the patterns and rhythms of the Upper Neolithic Age. The Valley
might be compared with Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout
-- with its sophisticated children plunging into the aboriginal wilderness -- but in Roeg's film, the form itself is so impregnated with the "sophistication," with allusion, symbol, ellipsis, reference, and symmetry that the moments of untamed grandeur are trapped like flies in the amber of the "poetry." In The Valley
, the poetry seethes up from the landscape itself, which we observe almost unfiltered -- Nestor Almendros's beautiful photography presenting humans, plants, and rocks to us with the innocence and perception of a waking child.
Whether you like The Valley
depends, probably, on your capacity for the suspension of some of your "learned attitudes" -- perhaps even on your whole internal temperature. I liked it myself, but then perhaps I'm still lodged in all those acid dreams of high hippiedom. Perhaps I'm still looking for the Valley, too. But, even including Idi Amin Dada
, it is the most
adventurous of Schroeder's films -- physically and perhaps morally as well, shot with that miniscule cast and budget in the luxuriant, savage wilderness of New Guinea, the Heart of Darkness filtered through Almendros's chromatic wizardry. The final theme of the film, of course, is the quest for Paradise (both external and internal) . . . and the valley itself, for the troupe of explorers, is the paradigm of earthly and spiritual desire.
Whether they're right or not is something Schroeder never judges or reveals. The movie ends at precisely the point where they find the valley. And, more interestingly, he also refuses to judge through his style -- which is rapt, distanced shot through with a cool, steady absorption. You're free to see the group as visionary rebels or crazy suicides. It's the quest itself -- not the goal -- that is everything. The Searchers, not the Searched.
— Michael Wilmington
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