Valley Of Love

France (2015) Dir. Guillaume Nicloux

Take two of France’s greatest actors, a story with a unique and intriguing premise and a multi-hyphenate writer-director to helm the project, and the rest should theoretically take care of itself, correct? Sadly in this case of this Palme d’Or nominated film that isn’t quite the end result, despite the “can’t miss” prospect the central ingredients promise.

Gallic legends Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert essentially play loose versions of themselves as former actors, now a divorced couple. They had a 25 year-old son Michael whom neither had seen nor heard from in years until recently learning of his death. They then each receive a letter written by Michael, asking them to make a trip together to Death Valley in the US where he promises to appear before them one last time.

The premise is wonderfully enticing as either a supernatural thriller or a psychological drama and to be fair Guillaume Nicloux’s script does tease both in the final act, but not enough to warrant a definite classification into either genre. We pretty much get an idea of what sort of film to expect from the opening, a two minute tracking shot following Isabelle (they retain their real names) as she walks towards her room at the hotel complex.

After five or so minutes of Isabelle trying to settle in and fighting a losing battle against a lousy mobile phone signal, Gérard finally arrives, their awkward conversation finally revealing the reason why they have been brought together. If they weren’t such well known faces, Depardieu and Huppert do actually look like your average tourist couple – her: gamine, smart but suitably attired, him: overweight, awful shirts, ill-fitting shorts, constantly bickering.

Whatever caused their divorce, there appears to be little animus, only residual memories of each other’s foibles. Isabelle is painted as the more emotional of the two, heartbroken at abandoning Michael at such a young age and eventually losing contact with him, her regrets forming an icy shield behind which she quietly scolds Gérard. But as the journey progresses, Isabelle begins to soften and open moe while Gérard’s robust cynicism gives way to an equally softened soul.

Information gleamed through the often fraught conversations between the estranged couple as they drive in the searing heat through the remarkably picturesque Death Valley, reveals a fractious relationship between Michael and his parents which led him to his depression and eventual suicide in the US where he lived with his boyfriend. Whilst angry with his parents’ abandonment of him, Michael did express his continued and unconditional love for them.

This leaves Isabelle wracked with guilt and regret while Gérard, who refuses to stay for the whole trip, accepts his role in this and is keen to get the answers. The itinerary Michael laid out for his parents instructs them to be at a different landmark of Death Valley at a certain time each day, after which Michael promises he will join them to say goodbye.

How Michael plans to reveal himself is not known, but the intrigue is built around his letters which were written in the past tense, including the time and date of his suicide. One night Isabelle feels someone grab her foot which leaves a mark that burns whenever they arrive at a site, taking this to be a sign from Michael. Gérard meanwhile encounters a disabled girl in the hotel tennis court one night which may or may not have been a dream.

Then again, this whole film could have been a dream, as Nicloux doesn’t seem intent on following up on any the ideas he presents to us, making this a frustrating and unrewarding way to spend 88 minutes. Perhaps that isn’t strictly true as we do get to see two giants of French cinema reunite on screen for the first time since 1980, and giving their all in their roles, but in terms of delivering an engaging story with a satisfying resolve, this falls way below par.

Not that we should be spoon fed every detail however. Initial deductions that Michael is trying to reunite his parents who he believes shouldn’t have split are too obvious and quickly dismissed yet alternative reason don’t surface in any significant way. Perhaps it was to make Isabelle suffer or try cracking Gérard’s stoic demeanour, or maybe it wasn’t – who knows?

As churlish and overly cynical as this may sound, one wonders if Nicloux wanted to take a camera around Death Valley but at someone else’s expense so he concocted this half baked script to entice the two legendary leads to strengthen his case. There is no denying the camerawork is exquisite and makes the repetitive and sparse desert vistas appear gloriously inviting, but the amount of footage shown of the scenery suggests a travelogue not an arthouse film.

If the major hook for film fans is seeing Huppert and Depardieu together then at least we are well served on that front. The chemistry created alone is naturally effortless and convincing – presumably they know each other well away from the camera – and their interactions are joyous examples of nuance through instinct than method acting.

Huppert initially seems to be playing to type – the sharp, sullen, simmering volcano ready to explode but over time Isabelle softens and becomes quite sympathetic and very human. Depardieu delivers his strongest turn for a long while, taking Gérard a more subtle journey although he does it with his shirt off quite a lot, his bulbous torso being an unpleasant sight, especially overhanging his shorts.  

There will be an audience who are on Nicloux’s wavelength and will see Valley Of Love in a different light, finding the lack of follow through and resolve to the various threads as enigmatic; for the rest of us this is a great idea not fully realised, played out by two cinematic giants who deserve much better than this script, but whose performances go some way to compensating for its weaknesses.