[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
A vaguely arty bourgeois couple experiment with sexual freedom and end by pretty thoroughly disassembling their lives as they have known them. The bored wife of a New Guinea–based diplomat leaves the capital long enough to scout up some exotic feathers for the world of haute couture, learns of a likelier source farther from civilization, and ends by disappearing into a white area on the map in quest of Paradise. Claude Chabrol directed Une Partie de plaisir and Barbet Schroeder made La Vallée but, while each film makes sense in the context of its director’s career, some broad thematic similarities suggest that Paul Gégauff, the screenwriter they claim in common, has been at least equally important in determining the nature of the finished films.
Une Partie de plaisir, in fact, may be even more Gégauff’s film than Chabrol’s: in addition to having written the script, Gégauff plays the leading role—opposite his wife Danièle—and has freely called attention to the psychodrama aspect of the whole venture. Suggesting both a visual and characterological cross between George Macready and Shepperd Strudwick, Gégauff’s protagonist is first seen introducing his wife to the pleasures of baiting a fishhook with a live crawfish and then making love to her on a rock by the sea. At one of Chabrol’s dinnertable interludes shortly after they have left this vacation site, he brings up the subject of extramarital sex—Has she indulged? Ever wanted to? How would she feel if he did?—because, well, he has, it was no big deal, and he wouldn’t mind at all if she yearned for a temporary change now and again. She’s shy, dubious, just a little wounded by both the revelation and the suggestion; but when a house party affords the opportunity not long afterward, she opts for a brief adventure with a gentle Arabian friend of a friend. The husband listens to her sounds of pleasure somewhere in the house, and tenderly looks in to be sure their child is sleeping peacefully. But life-events get away from the teacher. While still abiding by his libertarian principles—and copping friendly feels from another mutual friend in the kitchen—he begins to compete with the lover, and insults the friend that this interloping friend of a friend has brought to the next party. While she screws the Arab, the husband can’t manage to stay the course with the kitchen cuddler. And so, with increasing psychosexual complications, it goes, as the wife continues to discover her own identity and Gégauff becomes more and more desperate about—and insistent on—his male supremacy.
The interactions get pretty raw, and so is Chabrol’s style markedly more raw than we are accustomed to from the voluptuous precision of such turn-of-the-Seventies bourgeois studies as La Femme infidèle and Juste avant la nuit, Gégauff’s flagellating rite of exorcism and Chabrol’s carefully restrained instincts toward form and lucidity both culminate in a harrowing cemetery scene in which the husband, psychically adrift and astonished by his now-divorced wife’s refusal to take up with him again, tries to stomp her to death on the fresh grave of her adopted mother, and gets swathed in the black veil of a nearby mourner who runs to the wife’s assistance. But if Chabrol’s directorial authority reasserts itself time and again in gestures like this, still the heart of the film proves ultimately to be not Chabrol and not Paul Gégauff (whose point-of-view we pretty much share throughout), but Danièle Gégauff as fledgling actress and as a character whose reality seems only one step removed (at most) from “real life.” Her onscreen maturation as performer and knowable human being is searingly painful, and searingly beautiful as well.
Nothing like it nails down the vagrant drift of La Vallée away from its compellingly enchanting opening—aerial views of a cloud-covered New Guinea mountain range as a narrator whispers of wondrous mysteries and Pink Floyd music seems to throb up from the land itself. The first peopled shot to come onscreen—the bored wife (Bulle Ogier) and a half-loony storekeeper dickering over prices in a timbered outpost of progress—is too vast on the wide screen to justify its framing as dramatic event, but in its very ungainliness seems to promise that there are possibilities to be sensed out and tried. Schroeder’s style continues in this vein: sequences fade in, fade out, narrative momentum almost nonexistent save for the brooding urgency of the viewer’s curiosity (this viewer’s curiosity, at any rate) as long as a Shangri-La story waits to be told. A hunter enters the store bearing the most exquisite plumes Ogier has ever seen; within a few sultry spaced-out moments she has run a spear through his foot, taken him to the hospital for first aid, returned him to his base camp, seen him absentmindedly drop a tarp between her and a pair of as-yet-unidentified nude lovers lying on a cot in the tent where they keep the feathers, and been perfunctorily seduced while her eyes and fingers linger on those rare plumes from far in the backcountry.
The hunter and the lovers and another woman and somebody’s pubescent son are off soon for The Valley, which they’ve got into their heads is Paradise on earth (it’s invisible from the air, and no one who went there has ever returned, obviously because they didn’t want to leave…), and the wife elects to go at least part of the way. The ensuing voyage into unexplored geography of jungle and psyche very quickly recalls the doper’s odyssey of Schroeder’s earlier film More (also scored by Pink Floyd): the dress- and bathing-suit–wearing wife is soon comfortable with the minimal clothing style of her fellow travellers, a little sipping of hallucinogens by the light of the moon has her caressing the local serpents she used to fear, and she eventually gets used to the casual patterns of sexual partnering practiced by the roving commune (although experimentation with her own gender seems limited to the trading of understanding embraces with the woman she discovers her initial lover balling in a free moment). Unfortunately, Schroeder is more infatuated with than perceptive about the compulsion to search for paradise, and even the handsome camera eye of Nestor Almendros (Two English Girls, Claire’s Knee, The Story of Adèle H., etc.) is unable to tell us more than that New Guinea certainly is a gorgeous place to photograph. The first hunter (Michael Gothard) keeps a considerable distance between himself and his comrades’ laid-back conviction that all will turn out copacetic, going so far as to point out to Ogier that, no matter how many feathers they collect and how many native ceremonies they participate in and how many Western hangups they shed, they remain tourists—tourists destined to go up the garden path and find that the garden is nowhere. That, finally, is where Schroeder and Gégauff’s narrative leads, and although the cast and crew must have had a swell time on location, the viewer stranded in a theater seat can only regret that such a primally evocative adventure was permitted to dissolve into spacey banalities—banalities, moreover, that America’s counterculture exhausted years ago. How anticlimactic that Gallic sophistication should run afoul of American mysticism at its most jellybrained.
UNE PARTIE DE PLAISIR
Direction: Claude Chabrol. Screenplay: Paul Gégauff. Cinematography: Jean Rabier. Editing: Jacques Gaillard.
The players: Paul Gégauff, Danièle Gégauff.
Direction: Barbet Schroeder. Screenplay: Paul Gégauff and Barbet Schroeder, after a story by Schroeder. Cinematography: Nestor Almendros. Music: Pink Floyd.
The players: Bulle Ogier, Michael Gothard, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Valérie LaGrange
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson