Every once in a while a movie comes around that solely achieves its greatness due to its performances. It seems like French writer/director Guillaume Nicloux has made such a movie by design. The performances of Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu drive Valley of Love so much so that their characters are even called Isabelle and Gérard, and the actors are only credited with their last names (see also the poster, which has their names presented in larger type above the film’s title). It’s an acting reunion 35 years in the making, and boy have these screen presences evolved since Maurice Pialat’s 1980 film Loulou.
Let’s get the most obvious out of the way. Depardieu has grown fat. Nicloux and the actor hold nothing back, as Gérard often appears in the film sweaty and shirtless. Depardieu has grown into a behemoth of whale-like girth whose tight belly now outshines his big, crooked nose as a physically defining feature. His belabored breathing reveals that almost every movement is an effort. “I got fat,” he tells Isabelle early in the movie, after they are reunited. They are divorced parents of a gay son they hardly knew, who left France for San Francisco and recently ended his life with suicide. Before offing himself, he mails them each letters announcing his demise with instructions to see the sights of Death Valley together where he promises to appear to them one more time.
There’s no way this film would have worked, without the free-flowing rapport between the two leads. Clearly they have grown in different directions, but they also have an unshakable past and shorthand. This comes across in their ease of chemistry as actors and as characters who share a particular tragedy. Though this seems meta, Nicloux hardly dwells on this, taking his time to reveal that the characters happen to be recognizable actors. But Nicloux only presents this in passing, via Gérard’s encounter with an autograph hound (Dan Warner) who can’t place what movie he has seen him in.
Nicloux, however, is more concerned with the fractured world of a family long broken, and he has put together two greats of French cinema to transmit that with engaging performances. When Isabelle asks Gérard to read their son’s words to her, he flips the hand-written letter from front to back and then back to front in his beefy fingers, presenting its length with his casual, exhausted malaise. He’s not only drained by his personal heft but also the oppressive heat of the desert, not to mention the seeming futility of this impossible quest. You feel like hearing this letter could be a tiresome exercise not just for Gérard but for the audience to sit through. However, he reads the letter with a sort of detachment, giving their son’s mystical premonition a sort of banal gloom that echoes of their failures as parents. It also gives what’s left of this family a pulsing heart, as Isabelle is moved to tears by the end of the reading. This long passage also speaks to Nicloux’s openness to the two actors, whose performances he never chops up with impatient edits but instead gives them space to breath and perform.
If the leads are great, the supporting players, all Americans, never match up. Nicloux worked with a translator (David H. Pickering) for the American parts, and it shows. The American interactions are awkward in their chemistry. But then the film features many surreal, almost Lynchian moments that also lends a sort of unreal air to the American actors’ performances. Gérard also has a strange encounter with a deformed woman as he strolls past the motel’s tennis court at night. During one trip to the Death Valley sites, Isabelle finds the bloody head of a big dog in bag left under the sink of a rest stop bathroom. When she peeks inside the bag, a man leans in from behind the door of the small bathroom and with a “Pardon Me, ma’am,” grabs the bag and leans back out.
There are other unknowable worlds beyond this couple, who so desperately try to make up for a past that can never be reconciled. They failed at getting to know their son, and now, with the selfish act of suicide, this spawn has somehow become a narcissistic life (or death) force against these broken parents. As Gérard says early in the film, “He is doing this to punish us.” This mystical, heart-breaking and often funny movie doesn’t feel like any film I have recently seen. It’s a warped kind of mystery with a meandering narrative that reveals the power of performance to convey story, even if at times the narrative feels slippery and won’t necessarily give the audience a pat ending, it will leave them satisfied with truth in performance.
Valley of Love runs 91 minutes, is in English and French with English subtitles and is not rated (trigger warning: cursing, references to suicide and nightmares and that out of nowhere appearance of a dog’s head in a bag). It opens exclusively in our South Florida area on Friday, April 8, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens for a run at the Bill Cosford Cinema the following day, April 9. To find screening dates near you, visit this link. Strand Releasing provided all images used in this post.