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Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert, those enduring monuments of French cinema, last shared the screen in Maurice Pialat’s 1981 Loulou as a studly small-time crook and his fresh-faced mistress. Now the two are back together — the former with his middle-aged bulk, the latter having slimmed down to an alarmingly wiry frame — in Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, a flawed but affecting two-hander that intrigues and frustrates in nearly equal measure. Revolving around an estranged couple that reunites in California’s Death Valley per instructions in their son’s suicide note, the movie starts off like a nostalgia stunt for French film buffs, tiptoes toward something deeper and more unsettling, then proceeds to circle it nervously instead of plunging headlong into the darkness.
This Cannes competition entry could enjoy a bit of attention abroad thanks to its legendary leads and striking desert setting, though the movie itself is finally too slight to make any major critical or commercial impact.
Nicloux (The Nun, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq), who also wrote the screenplay, opens with a long-ish tracking shot following Isabelle (both main characters are named after the actors) as she walks to her room at a dusty resort. There’s a ticklish pleasure in seeing the petite, quintessentially Parisian Huppert, chic in a sundress and heels, at this most American-looking of motels, with its modest pool, honky-tonk restaurant-bar and chatty guests; one priceless shot shows her in bed slurping Cup-o-Noodles while watching an infomercial.
Soon enough, her ex-husband Gerard (Depardieu) arrives, and a few conversations between them reveal the reason for the meeting: Their adult son, Michael, who had dropped out of touch years ago and was living in San Francisco with his boyfriend, has recently committed suicide and left them each a letter with orders to go to Death Valley (where he himself had been just a week before killing himself) — and, specifically, to visit certain sites at certain times on certain days. If they do so, he writes, he will meet them there. Though it’s not clear what exactly he means or how much his parents believe his cryptic metaphysical promise, they go along with it, fueled by guilt and hope for some kind of closure.
As Gerard and Isabelle set out by car into the vast national park, the dialogue ranges from slightly melodramatic (overly explicit conversations about their troubled relationships with Michael) to cutesy (Gerard griping Frenchly about the heat and the monotony of the scenery). It’s no surprise that the most vivid moments come when Nicloux lets his images do the talking, during swift, largely silent interludes between excursions: Gerard cooling off in the pool, his massive, sun-braised slab of an upper body filling much of the frame; he and Isabelle lying in their side-by-side beds, reading and dozing just before turning out the lights.
Huppert, who gave an unusually warm, accessible turn as a doomed war photographer in Joachim Trier’s competition film Louder Than Bombs, starts out in more typical fashion here — aloof, lips pursed in annoyance — but her performance softens, and deepens, as the story unfolds. And if Depardieu, too, seems to be in default mode (read: grumbling and bumbling) in early scenes, he hits touching notes of tenderness and desperation in the movie’s second half, when we learn that Gerard is not as robust as he appears. Though his physical appearance and embarrassing public antics have recently threatened to turn him into a walking punchline, Valley of Love reminds us that Depardieu remains a vital, formidably skilled actor.
The dynamic between the stars feels overly familiar at first (he’s the incorrigible but good-hearted boor, she’s the irritable scold), but their comfortable rapport is one of the film’s most potent assets. It’s also, ironically, one of its biggest limitations; Nicloux leans too much on his leads, not working hard enough to make the movie around them interesting. About halfway through, Valley of Love takes a turn for the supernatural — the director stages one breathtaking, Lynchian nocturnal encounter on a tennis court — and though there is some tenuously sustained suspense regarding whether, and in what form, Michael may still be around, the movie sticks to the well-trodden narrative path of parents coming to terms with a dead child. Nicloux toys with ghost story elements that might have taken things into riskier, more fulfilling territory, but he never commits to them or integrates them coherently into the film.
The over-reliance on Huppert and Depardieu is visual, too, with Nicloux and DP Christophe Offenstein only periodically pulling the camera away from them to take in the landscape in handsome widescreen frames. Valley of Love looks good, but one sometimes has the feeling it could have taken place anywhere; the setting and the plot don’t feed off, or into, each other as satisfyingly as they might have.
Charles Ives’ mournful score is mercifully restrained with some pleasing dissonant notes. It should be noted that Valley of Love is not the only Cannes competition selection this year to feature a haunted duo wandering in the wilderness; we also got The Sea of Trees’ Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe exchanging inanities in a Japanese forest. For all of their film’s shortcomings, I’ll take Huppert and Depardieu any day.
Production companies: Les Films du Worso, LGM Productions
Writer-director: Guillaume Nicloux
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Gerard Depardieu, Dan Warner, Aurelia Thierree
Director of photography: Christophe Offenstein
Producers: Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste Dupont, Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon
Executive producer: Patrick Batteux
Production designer: Olivier Radot
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Music: Charles Ives
Costume design: Anais Romand
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