2015 Film Essays

Locarno 2015: ‘La vallée’ (Barbet Schroeder, 1972)


Battling for attention with the hypermasculinity of Michael Cimino and Sam Peckinpah, French actress Bulle Ogier was similarly honoured at this year’s edition of the Locarno International Film Festival. Best known for her collaborations with Jacques Rivette in films like Le Pont du Nord, she has collaborated with many of the very best European filmmakers of the past 50 years.

One of the films screened as part of this retrospective is the rarely seen and discussed film La vallée, a bizarre phantasmagorical journey into New Guinea. Ogier plays Viviane, a bored housewife who travels across the globe in search of trinkets for a chic Paris boutique. While in New Guinea, she meets a man who offers to help her find rare feathers from a bird of paradise, and along with his caravan of hippies, they are venturing into the depths of the jungle, in search of a valley never before seen by man.


Schroeder’s style, which I’d describe as “overly detached,” is often difficult to penetrate. He has a documentary edge, revelling in the passage of time and a documentary spirit which acknowledges that life is as much about the moments between action than it is the action themselves. His films, as a result, can be plodding and indecent in their indulgence in the passage of real time, while Schroeder also dreams up some very convenient narrative coincidences.

This film in particular is thematically on the nose, as the comparison between Viviane’s growing awareness of personal liberty (especially related to sex) and her obsessive desire to possess illegal feathers feels somewhat trite. La vallée indulges in a particularly egregious trend of 1960s/70s cinema that portrays or idolizes the idea of free love without suggesting it is merely a new extension of patriarchal conventions. While forgivably “of the time,”  it is so uncritical that it merely comes across as insincere or even worse — trendy.


Where the film succeeds is in its incorporation of hallucinogens, use of sex and documentary style images. La vallée can hardly be connected to the psychedelic cinema because Schroeder does not indulge in that breed of subjectivity. Instead, we are witnesses. We watch characters tripping, including a remarkable scene where Bulle seduces a lime-green snake, which she is normally deathly afraid of.

The sex in La vallée is incredible. It feels real and animalistic, romantic for its lack of flourish because of Schroeder’s distant lens. It’s difficult not to be taken in by Bulle’s beauty in particular — she almost seems like a vision, finally coming to life. The film translates her desire for the men who now surround her, as they reinvigorate her. The sex seems almost spiritual in its rawness, it has the power to transform.


The other scenes that work remarkably well are ones in the New Guinea village. These scenes are rich, filled with a vibrant energy otherwise lacking in the film. They are, perhaps, similarly problematic as they indulge in cultural tourism, but unlike the film’s portrayal of free love, the characters themselves bring up this idea as Bulle says she wants to live there forever. The romance of the celebration and the perceived simplicity of their lives is appealing to the sheltered western woman, but in reality could she work the fields? Could she fight for survival?


La vallée is not an entirely successful film, largely because of its limp energy and problematic ideological frameworks. It is, however, intensely bizarre and a fascinating portrait of a particular time and place. In some ways, the troubled shoot is a lot more interesting than the film itself. Drugs, sex and animals made for a lethal combination of factors that led to a very “interesting” shooting experience. The film is also notable for being one of the very first to show the practices of the indigenous tribes of New Guinea.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.