Thanks to cheap air travel, an ever-shrinking world, and our spirit for adventure, many of us have the opportunity to escape our humdrum lives – either briefly or for extended periods. But, on seeing this allegorical tale about a woman’s journey of self-discovery, I got a bit of a wake-up call. The Valley may have been made 40 years ago, but its themes still resonate.
In director Barbet Schroeder’s second feature (his first was the controversial 1969 hippies on drugs film, More), French actress Bulle Ogier (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) plays Viviane, the bored wife of an Australian-based French consul, who fills her empty life buying native arts for a chic Parisian boutique.
But while searching for the rare and beautiful features of the Kumul bird in Papua New Guinea, Vivian meets adventurer Olivier (Michael Gothard, best known for his roles in The Devils and Scream and Scream Again) just as he is about to depart for a uncharted hidden valley with some travellers who believe the locale is an undiscovered paradise.
At first, Viviane tags along with the intention of securing her precious feathers, but after encountering the Mapuga tribe – who have had little contact with foreigners and their corrupting ways – she becomes transformed. Enriched by the experience (and some mind-bending jungle juice), Viviane ends up discarding her consumerist ideals and joins the group on their quest for nirvana.
The Valley is a deeply contemplative film that fuses fiction and documentary with improvised dialogue. Made with just a crew of just 13, this road movie by land rover, horseback and on foot, set to Pink Floyd’s shimmering psychedelia, is very much of the period – and one in which the director gets to unleash his thoughts about ‘finding one-self’ in a post-hippy era.
This comes to the fore in Olivier’s philosophical speech to Viviane, during the Mapuga’s colourful and elaborate Day of the Dead celebrations. Viviane believes she has found truth by living amongst the tribe, but Olivier rejects this, saying ‘we are just tourists’. And he’s right, because we, in the western world, are free to escape our lives, while people like the Mapuga live in terror and respect for the taboos that make up their society.
Despite Olivier’s wake-up call, the couple climb higher into the mountains with their group, until they become ‘obscured by clouds’. While The Valley ends ambiguously – and quite abruptly, the true beauty of the film is not whether the group finds paradise or not, but the journey itself.
The almost wordless scenes of these outsiders helping the Mapuga prepare for the big feast are outstanding, as though sprung from the pages of National Geographic; while the shots of Viviane meeting the Goroka Mud Men are unique and truly haunting. Shroeder’s meditative modern fable is made all the more spectacular by the BFI’s superb Blu-ray restoration, which the director personally oversaw and has enthusiastically received.
If there’s one road movie you must see before your next long-haul jaunt, then The Valley is a must. The release has also made me want to re-explore Schroeder’s diverse filmography – beginning with More (of course).
The BFI’s Dual Format release is out now