Based on a novel by René Barjavel, this clump of wanderlust/vision quest/hippy romance has dated very, very badly, but it's almost saved by the stunning location photography by Andréas Winding (Play Time), primarily in Nepal and India, and writer/director André Cayatte frequently intercutting docu-styled portraits and vignettes of locals to enrich Olivier's (Renaud Verley) travels from Paris to Nepal in search of his father to redeem a promissory note for $50,000.
That's more or less the film's core storyline, and Olivier's quest is initially motivated by some personal legal troubles (inferred by the film's main title montage of multi-tinted clips that show Olivier's anti-establishment activities intercut with newsreel footage of political protests and civil unrest), as well as wanting to save his girlfriend, a high-fashion model, from a bourgeois lifestyle, and her pimp-like photographer who threatens to destroy her career if she leaves with the scruffian rebel.
Thoroughly broke, Olivier lies to a charity agency and scams a plane flight from France to India , where he meets an old school chum and immediately confesses his goal isn't to live with a local desert tribe for 2 years and aiding the need for water and crop growth, but plain hard cash.
A self-confessed “pig” and scoundrel, Olivier's buddy nevertheless gives him water for his desert trek to Nepal , and our hero travels far and wide through desert and rocky mountain terrain until he's exhausted, and passes out under a wan tree. A trio of hippies – one Dutch, one Danish, and a British flower child named Jane (Jane Birkin) – approach the unconscious lad, and tickle him to consciousness with flowers and song.
Hooked on Jane's beauty, facial paint, and silky voice, Olivier travels with the group and is quite puzzled when Jane's boyfriend –seen earlier groping her booby by firelight – allows the other companion to boff her in a local temple. Olivier realizes these kids are a bit crazy (Jane apparently loves Everyone), and although he sticks with the trio when a cougar (Arlene Dahl) offers them a lift in her shiny new white Ford Galaxy 500 station wagon en route to Nepal, he eventually cuts out when he tires of their total lack of any material goals.
In due time, he finds his father, an ace hunter whose bourgeois lifestyle Olivier finds utterly distasteful, until he discovers dad is quite broke, and is living off the finances of his partner, Ted (a greasy and very silly-looking Serge Gainsbourg), and apparently enjoying the company of Teddy's wife Martine (gorgeous Elsa Martinelli, also to appear in Lucio Fulci's Una sull'altra / Perversion Story the same year).
Olivier splits again, hoping to track down Jane, whom he realizes he genuinely loves, but with zero cash in his pocket, Olivier goes to Ted and offers a stolen erotic wall carving for some quick cash. Ted senses a possible partnership, and offers him work as a small-time art thief. Armed with a film camera and motorcycle, Olivier pretends to be an anthropological filmmaker, and uses his cover to snatch assorted nick-knacks, until he finds Jane with her boyfriend in an opium loft. Although he initially eschews the use of drugs, Olivier eventually takes some deep opium puffs, and enters la-la land, which leads to trippy sex with Jane.
The following morning, Olivier endures the headaches of a virgin drug user, and vows to stay away from heroin, and convinces Jane to follow suit – only to see her fall into a rapid state of withdrawal, and reject Olivier for mucking up her ‘free' lifestyle, where she's at one with herself, with the world, and with the sun (presumably because it's warm, soothing, and pretty).
Still convinced he can rescue her from this evil hippy world, Olivier takes a withering, pale, barely conscious Jane to Ted's pad, where wife Martine has returned to, and decided she and Ted will no longer be sleeping together because he's a scumbag.
While Martine sets up Jane in bed and arranges for a doctor to help her recuperate, Ted explains an easy way to get cash so Olivier can transport Jane to a proper hospital and help her get clean: saw off a rare wooden Buddha from a temple, and with half the profits, Olivier and Jane can go on their merry way.
When Olivier takes the artifact to the buyer's house, he finds his father is the one who opens the door, and realizes Ted has set up father and son for a quick arrest because dad was boffing Martine. Dad tosses the statue in the fireplace to foil a sudden police inspection, and Olivier quickly heads to Ted's pad for revenge.
Ted, wanting sex and some payback, has doped up Jane with heroine, and when confronted by Olivier, begs the youth to forget about ‘this waifish whore,' and during their fight, Jane's terrifying hallucinations bring her close to an open window, where she falls out and dies from SPS [Smacking Pavement Syndrome]. Olivier runs into the house to kill Ted, but Martine beats him to it with a handgun.
Fed up with jealousy, back-stabbing, destructive drug use, and colonial arrogance, Olivier cuts ties with his father and the old girlfriend in Paris, and chooses to return to India, where he spends his time and what's left of his finances helping the local tribe he walked out on to sustain themselves in their arid desert world.
Cut to: close-up of happy village little girl, and Fadeout.
Even if the hippie characters were equally potent in the original novel, it's clear Katmandou was not designed as a straight exploitation youth film; it has some of the requisite elements – sex, nudity, drug use, the rejection of dad's morally bankrupt world, and characters that espouse a ‘free' lifestyle – but it's basically a story of a youth's quest to find his own moral rules with which to live, and find peace through a simpler life when so much of his surrounding world is going to hell. The longer he inhabits urban, if not western environs, the better chance of being contaminated by the greed, hunger, and double-crossing that led him to flee France in the first place.
Director Cayatte also treats the material like a straight drama, with marginal visual gimmicks to lend a bit more visual verve to the film.
While the German VHS dub, titled Overdose, used for this review isn't the ideal judge of the film's colour design, the film's cinematography angles towards pastels and high contrasts: the fashion shoot at the film's beginning has models in white body paint being photographed on a white soundstage with primary-coloured objects; Olivier's vandalizing of a Parisian butcher shop has reds glowing from near black-and white film stock; the desert scenes are harsh but rich in their shades of sandy brown and yellow; flashback sequences (often having actors parked in front of a rear projected backdrop) are tinted blue, and some transitions have colour bleeding up to normal saturation; and the drug hallucinations are done with rippling optical effects, along with the morphing of faces in Jane's final freak-out.
The acting is uniformly adequate, since the characters are archetypes stretched to their most idyllic, rebellious, or corrupt boundaries, although Gainsbourg's persona gives Ted a rather effete quality that makes his mean streak at the end less convincing. (His death scene is also a lame tumble-crumple to the floor.)
Katmandou has its share of dated silliness – a party game at the scummy photographer's swinging pad involves blindfolding a man and having him guess the identity (or in Olivier's case, the hair colour) of a girl by groping her breasts for an extremely luxurious period) – but there's more serious, critical undercurrents: the hippie lifestyle of middle-income white youths in the Middle East and Asia is depicted as indulgent, and ultimately pointless.
As Olivier searches for Jane in the film's second third, kids that have stayed for long periods in Nepal are shown as broke and starving wastrels; they're human litter among the locals whose own daily lives include spiritualism plus a daily work plan for sustenance.
Cayatte also structures the film to show the illusory nature of traveling hippies: at first shown having breezy fun singing, screwing, and admiring the splendor of the mountain region, the youths (mostly costumed in Brown Hippie Wig #12) are reduced to drug addicts, and the cycle repeats itself when Olivier has to shoo away a whole group of singing airheads who try to make camp in the temp where he's sawing off the rare Buddha carving.
Unlike more targeted films like MGM's Zabriskie Point (1968), Katmandou doesn't feature pop songs, extended love-ins, or violent action scenes set to kinetic music (although Birkin, who may well have done her own German dubbing in the reviewed copy, does croon a sappy song of the end credits). Gainsbourg's original score is quite sparse, and whole cues lack any dramatic development, but the tone and mix of contemporary sounds with Indian samples works very well, and Morricone-esque title theme is superb (making it a real shame the score, much like most of Gainsbourg's instrumental film work, isn't available on CD).
Chunks of Katmandou are unintentionally funny, making this a lost gem of hippie-era ephemera, but there are some visual and thematic aspects that are quite striking and distinguish this forgotten oddity from more generic, oversexed youth fodder.
Les chemins de Katmandou was Jane Birkin's second re-teaming with Serge Gainsbourg (after Slogan), and the real-life couple would pop up again in the Yugoslavian WWII epic (!) 19 djevojaka i Mornar / The Rage of War (1971), although the actress would again delve into provocative sexual terrain in Henry Chapier's Sex Power (1970), again playing a character named Jane.
With more of Birkin's film work now available on DVD in Europe, perhaps someone will give this lost gem a proper release with contextual extras.
Gainsbourg and Birkin’s other filmic appearances include Slogan (1969), Les chemins de Katmandou (1969), Cannabis (1970), 19 djevojaka i Mornar (1971), La Morte negli occhi del gatto / Seven Deaths in the Cat's Eye (1973), as well as the TV productions Melody (1971) and Bons baisers de Tarzan (1974).
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan