Valley of Love
Directed by Guillaume Nicloux
Opens March 25 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Death Valley has been swallowing movie characters up ever since the silent era: The hulking dentist McTeague met his end on the salt flats in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, and the two travelers of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry got very lost indeed staggering through the same terrain, to cite just a couple examples. In French writer-director Guillaume Nicloux’s strange and moving new film, Valley of Love, the great basin serves not as a hostile element but as a monument to the sorrows of whoever’s beholding it. In this meditation on love and loss, it’s as if the crags and dunes of Death Valley have been purified by the heat into a form of magnificent sadness.
The downbeat Love is certainly scenic (cinematographer Christophe Offenstein recently won a César for his work on it), but the main attraction here is nonetheless the marquee pairing: Famous French actors Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu play famous French actors Isabelle and Gérard, former lovers who have reunited after many years in a parched corner of the American West—as they have been instructed to do in the twin suicide notes left by their adult son, Michael. He has vowed to appear to his parents—how, he can’t explain—at one of the valley’s landmarked sites.
Nicloux, whose last film was The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, spends a bit too much time early on stressing the movie stars’ sense of dislocation. Isabelle glumly eats instant noodles in her motel room; Gérard signs an obnoxious fan’s nearest-to-hand item, a copy of John Cheever’s Falconer, as “Bob De Niro.” This dully droll material gives way to the intimate interplay that forms the heart of the movie. Huppert and Depardieu, appearing on-screen together for the first time since Maurice Pialat’s 1980 Loulou, bicker tenderly as they search the landscape for signs of Michael, sift through recollections of their own past together, and struggle to interpret their dreams and visions. It is Depardieu, as a mass of a man facing his own mortality, who anchors the film, baring his huge belly for the camera even when he’s not in the vicinity of the motel pool—he’s quite clearly (and quite poignantly) a man lost inside his own body.
The film gives only enough backstory about Michael’s upbringing to suggest that he had long since become a stranger to both of his parents, both of whom have had children with others in the years since their separation. This is, then, perhaps the closest thing to a reunion that the estranged mother and father and son could have had. Will Michael himself put in an appearance? Valley of Love, a sort of metaphysical search for meaning that risks getting dippy but never does, avoids answering such questions directly. What matters is not whether Isabelle and Gérard find some form of solace for the death of the son they never really knew, but that they are finally grasping toward it together.