Guillaume Nicloux writes and directs the considerate Valley of Love, which kind of has one foot in Maurice Pialat’s 1980 film Loulou and the other in a spectral inversion of reality. It positions its two glorious stars - Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu - nearly as themselves and dumps them in Death Valley.
Valley of Love was France’s 2015 Cannes entry and it resonates as a classical road movie, putting two screen icons on a path to elusive elements like self-discovery, resolution, and peace. Nothing comes easy and Christophe Offenstein’s exceptional tracking shots ensure the audience is along for every odd step.
Huppert is Isabelle and Depardieu is Gérard. They are a separated couple who reunite in Death Valley after receiving a mysterious letter from their deceased son Michael. He committed suicide some 25 years ago and the former couple is still coming to terms with it.
As Gérard and Isabelle navigate Death Valley, they have dinners and swim in the pool and explore the settings designated in Michael’s dispatch. They watch for signs of his presence, they read the letters, they explore the silhouettes of once scorching love. There are memories, irritating tourists, strange girls on tennis courts.
Huppert is a marvel as the more anxious of the pair. She spends her time in trousers and long shirts, despite the heat. She’s a vegetarian and she may or may not have seen a psychic about her son. She didn’t attend his funeral. She did seek out a graphologist to analyze the writing in the letter, though.
Depardieu’s presence is undeniable, both in the corporeal sense and the ethereal. He is the opposite of his former flame, a shrine to disproportionate living. He announces an illness due to his smoking. He drinks, stalks around with a parasol. His first words in the picture are about the goddamn heat.
One wonders what Gérard and Isabelle were like way back when. One wonders what kind of parents they were to Michael, who insists that he loves them. His words, however one approaches them, can be seen as a tease. Gérard believes he is being punished by his son. Isabelle believes similarly and longs to see his ghost.
There are some moments that hint to life beyond death, like when Gérard and Isabelle share a kiss and then another kiss. Her oblique smile, like she can tease away his advances and has always had that gift, sheds light on unsettled tenderness.
Of course, the place is another character all its own. Nicloux balances scenes of waiting in the heat with the tortuous unknown of hotels and restaurants. Sometimes, the couple finds themselves in a bar. Sometimes, they’re in the swimming pool. Sometimes, they’re in the dark waiting and screaming for the daylight.
And sometimes, there are moments that nearly feel out of place. The husband (Dan Warner) who wants Gérard’s autograph is pissed to discover that the actor signed his name as “Bob De Niro” and confronts him later. Isabelle stumbles across a dead dog in a men’s restroom.
The ambiguity of Valley of Love may prove frustrating for some, with the substance of Gérard’s epiphany lacking the revelatory gusto of more explicit cinematic work. But there is beauty in the mystery, wonder in not knowing all the details. The audience shares the void, ventures through the chasms and meanders through the valleys and hopes against hope to find that shred of love.
Valley of Love is now available on DVD thanks to the good people at Strand Releasing. The film is in French and English with English subtitles. A number of trailers are included in the release.