Directed by Guillaume Nicloux
Starring Gerard Depardieu, Isabelle Huppert
Released on 12th August 2016
Here’s a simple but ever-so-slightly strange idea. An estranged married couple meet at a resort village near Death Valley. Their son committed suicide six months ago, leaving each of them letters asking them both to be in certain places in the national park on specific days, because he’ll re-appear on one of them. So they put their personal animosity aside and respect his wishes.
And as you watch the opening scenes of Valley Of Love, there’s a sense you’re in for a thriller or horror. The camera follows a woman from behind as she takes her suitcase for a long walk round a holiday resort, with sparse, tingling strings for background music. But it’s a red herring – and the first of several. When we see the woman’s face, we realise it’s award winning French actress Isabelle Huppert and the following day she meets up with an even more familiar face. Gerard Depardieu. The last time they shared the screen was in 1980 in Loulou and they have, inevitably, aged. The difference in Depardieu is way more dramatic, though: his girth has reached massive proportions and he suffers in the intense heat. When he wears a shirt, he often looks like he’s worn it in the shower.
Director Guillaume Nicloux is having a little joke with us, as the couple are both actors and their names are Isabelle and Gerard. There’s a definite familiarity between the two, one that goes with having lived together for a number of years. Even though they’re separated, and they bicker on and off for the duration of the film, they can still say just about anything to each other. Like Huppert telling Depardieu that he’s fat. She tries to qualify it by adding that if he’s happy, that’s all that matters. He counters by asking if she really thinks he could be happy being the size he is. The years haven’t diminished their differences – or his fascination with her. But it’s very much one-sided.
Despite their tetchy relationship, they’re both in the same boat, grieving and full of remorse. They’re not only estranged from each other but their son as well. She, especially, is consumed with guilt because she’s not spoken to him for seven years. And his contact has been similarly sparse, so they both feel responsible for his suicide, even though his letters don’t offer a reason for what he did.
It’s a solemn little film, despite the bleached landscape and searing, brilliant sunshine. Inevitably so, given its themes of guilt, grief and estrangement, but it does have the occasional moment of bleak comedy, especially when a stranger is convinced he recognises Depardieu. And the convention is given a mischievous little twist.
Essentially, this is very much an actor’s piece and boast two wonderful performances from Depardieu and Huppert in what is a near two-hander. He’s the more sympathetic of the two – although sometimes the emphasis is on pathetic – and his eyes say it all when he looks at his ex. Put simply, he’s deeply lonely but he knows that what’s brought them together is only going to mean a temporary reunion.
The film makes good use of the scenery, although it’s so striking that it’s a gift for cinematographer Christophe Offenstein. But the focus is always on the two actors. And so it should be, because they’re both fascinating, performances full of delicacy, subtlety and honesty. It’s just frustrating that all their talent isn’t poured into a stronger, more satisfying story.
Valley Of Love is in cinemas and on demand now and was and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 11 August.