Valley of Love | Guillaume Nicloux | France, Belgium | 2015 | 91 minutes
Emily Caulfield contemplates the opportunities lost and found with the on-screen reunion of Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu in Valley of Love.
French film fans everywhere collectively squeal to hear that Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert are together again in Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love: not since 1981 have these two international stars shared the screen. That’s 34 years (and roughly 6 thousand bottles of wine for Depardieu), and yet the actors have lost nothing, only gained in emotional power, and restraint.
The film: challenging, exhausting, tender, unexpectedly surreal. It’s not a crowd-pleaser. It doesn’t sing, but the performances along the way hit notes that absolutely stun.
Possibly it’s rather pedestrian, but I got very stoked as Valley of Love opened; Nicloux uses the music of Charles Ives to great, deep effect. I was moved and excited, practically vibrating with expectation.
There’s a longish tracking shot as we follow the slight, Parisian floral-clad Huppert through a bewildering desert motel, with it’s sunbaked parking lot, dark serpentine hallways, medium-sized pool and bright pink guests. She’s there to meet her estranged ex-husband, played by Depardieu (still formidable, still magnetic), to follow the dying wishes of their adult son Michael, who just committed suicide after their long, slow falling out of touch.
Huppert and Depardieu both play some fictionalized version of themselves—actors since the 70s, France, Hollywood, Pacino and all the rest. Depardieu even cops to his weight gain, placing us squarely in the realm of maybe-this-could-happen-but-there’s-something-funny-going-on, which happens to be my favorite kind of flick.
So we’re in maybeland, made more interesting by Michael’s request: if they visit certain landmarks at certain days and times, he will meet them again in Death Valley, see them one more time. He’s sent them both letters, which Isabelle and Gerard read to each other, that say more or less the same thing: he acknowledges the disappointments and distances in their relationships. He loves them, forgives them, wants to see them again in Death Valley. Can’t explain it, but he knows it’s true, it will work. So of course they come.
Despite the breath-taking heat, hot winds, metaphysical malarky and a whole combo platter of doubts, hopes, and regrets, they come. Isabelle wants to stay the for the entire itinerary Michael has scheduled, even though she misses her second husband and two at home. Gerard, on the other hand, wants to leave early, and cagily refuses to say why (for a while).
The richly roasting scent of anticipation eventually fades out with Ives’ strings, and we’re left just wanting. Over and over again, there are these beautiful builds to no action. Moments and camera movements that feel sure, full of potential, fall away as if the entire journey is a slowly circling waltz that goes nowhere, dancers hovering in space. Some moments are subverted by the banality of the scenery: despite the sweeping vista of Death Valley, the film feels close, confined to the unremarkableness of a rental car, a souvenir store, a moderately priced resort in the California desert.
Mostly, the moments pass, diffuse. They reminisce a little, snipe, remember, forget. Huppert spends an befuddling amount of time trying to get service on her cell phone, to keep contact with her family. She and Depardieu circle around each other like boxers, each with slightly different memories of how it is, was. What this all means. What did Michael mean?
In a squabble over dropping bread crumbs, looking out over amazing mountains, he looks at her and recalls, “I slapped you once, remember?” Her closed shrug, and then, “Must’ve been someone else.” A hard look from him: “I don’t think so.”
The stakes rise higher as days pass, as they wait in this spot and that one for Michael to appear. They share tender moments, tediously realistic dialogue, and awkward passes. The movie is so slow and so slight that I begin to panic about sitting through the entire thing. I hang on.
For what, I’m not sure. Valley of Love is shot through with some seriously Lynchian spookiness. There’s a terrifying sense of tension that follows the pair in this motel in the desert, beyond the energy of whatever is or was between them. This foreboding eeriness kept me bolted to my seat, and reveals itself in some spectacular moments across the film. There is a confrontation on a tennis court in the middle of the night that is as surreal and as arresting as anything I’ve ever seen.
But mostly the film a frustrating series of letdowns, the excruciating sense of having worked on your corner of the jigsaw puzzle for an hour before realizing you’re missing a piece. In this case, it’s plot. However, while the I found the experience of watching the film maddeningly boring, I will argue that viewing it is still massively valuable. You couldn’t pay me to sit through it again, but I’d be gutted to have missed the feeling of promise of a start that strong, of a setup so surreal. It’s there we find a little honey, and sometimes that’s all you get.