Ghost story, love story or even metaphysical thriller Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, in competition at last month’s Cannes Film Festival, is an eclectic mix of genres held together beautifully by French icons Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert. These two have not been together on screen for 35 years when they played lovers in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou and there’s a real sense of missed opportunity as they handle Nicloux’s script with great finesse. Set against the majestic, heat-suffocating backdrop of California’s Death Valley, the two actors snap and snarl at each other while conveying the immense emotional attachment that still exists between them as former husband and wife. Valley of Love is also a perceptive study about grief and the inevitable questions raised by parents when an offspring commits suicide. The final third of the film, when Nicloux descends into more supernatural territory, is less satisfying and does start to drag. But the director, whose last film The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq won best screenplay at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, has an exceptional feel for dialogue and for using a physical landscape to reflect an interior truth.
Isabelle and Gérard have not seen each other for many years and meet up at a motel in Death Valley six months after their son inexplicably commits suicide. In a letter to his parents before his death, Michael asks them to go to Death Valley on a set date and together follow a specific itinerary over a number of days. If they do this, he promises he will appear at one of the designated places. Gérard reluctantly agrees to Michael’s posthumous request while Isabelle is convinced Michael will be there and they will finally understand what drove him to his death and to what extent they were responsible.
Nicloux’s strengths and weaknesses as a director apart, we need to talk about Gérard. In recent years, this fine actor has courted controversy both off and on the screen. There was his decision to become a Russian citizen, an unfortunate incident when he was caught short on an airplane and his appearance in Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York based on disgraced former IMF boss Dominique Strauss Kahn. This has served to overshadow the fact Depardieu is a great actor, one of the country’s best. And Valley of Love is a welcome return to form. Physically, there is scant resemblance to the actor of Francois Truffaut’s Le Dernier Metro or La Femme d’à Côté. He is now a mountain of a man whose every move seems to involve a superman effort on his part. In Valley of Love, he sweats, wheezes and grunts across the screen complaining endlessly about the heat and no effort is made to conceal his bulk as he spends a large part of the film dressed only in a pair of boxer shorts. Yet he has lost none of his ability to inject the simplest of scenes with emotional signifiance. And here his size makes him seem more vulnerable and intentionally comic. He is the perfect foil for the irrascible Huppert who also cuts a farcical figure as she slouches around the rocky desert in a ridiculous hat, displeasure writ large across her face.
Valley of Love is a simple, minimalist film whose success rests on the central performances of Depardieu and Huppert. And for that alone, it’s worth the price of a cinema ticket.
DIRECTOR’S BIO – GUILLAUME NICLOUX