Metaphysics, mortality and marriage sweat it out in the arid desert of Death Valley, California, in Guillaume Nicloux’s new feature, VALLEY OF LOVE. Divorced French film actors Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) and Gérard (Gérard Depardieu), have journeyed to a 40°C, green-lawn and palm tree-adorned motel in the middle of nowhere, following instructions in a pair of letters from their deceased, estranged son Michael.
Isabelle arrives at the motel first. We follow her thin frame walking around the hotel car park for over two minutes, looking for a shaded spot to sit it. Olivier Do-Huu’s well-paced string and horn score for the film is introduced, and it can be no coincidence that there is a haunting tone to it. Indeed, this shot that follows Isabelle feels somewhat like a phantom ride from the cinema of the early twentieth-century. But who is following Isabelle? And why are they not interacting with her just yet?
As Isabelle waits for her ex-husband to arrive, a couple enter the motel in the background. Both male. Both holding hands. These are the details to watch out for in the film, as nuances like this from Nicloux are the foreshadowing devices that will appear throughout the film. We soon find out from Gérard, as he reads aloud his letter from his dead son, that Michael was in a gay relationship, and killed himself with a cocktail of anti-depressants and painkillers – frustrated by the abonnement he felt from his parents, who seemingly divorced themselves from their son as well as each other. The letters to each parent instruct them to visit seven of Death Valley’s landmarks over the course of one week, at a set time of 2pm each day. Michael will show them signs he is with them from beyond the grave, and then at the end of the week, he will appear.
“You never really stop caring for someone, if you loved them,”
Christophe Offenstein, the film’s cinematographer, captures the vast, light-intense landscapes of Death Valley which perfectly sum up the fish-out-of-water scenario of mankind’s existence in such a barren, but beautiful environment. On each day, something happens, slightly odd, slightly out of the ordinary, which Isabelle and Gérard have cause to dismiss. Gérard thinks he sees something peculiar running through the desert, but when he points it out to Isabelle, there’s nothing to be seen for miles. Isabelle screams one evening when she is convinced something grabbed her legs in her bedroom, but when Gérard races up to answer her cries, the room is completely empty. What seems absurd at the start of the film to two rational French film stars playing heightened versions of themselves, à la Coogan and Brydon in THE TRIP, starts to appear more believable as the sweat-filled days progress.
“You never really stop caring for someone, if you loved them,” states Isabelle to Gérard, half-way through their stay. At the very least, Michael’s letters have brought his parents back together again for a week, on his terms. Nicloux has achieved this with Huppert and Depardieu in a physical sense too, re-uniting these on screen for the first time in over thirty years. Not only this though, he’s also created a slow-paced, mesmeric study of two characters on a reconciliatory journey of reminiscence and redemption that far exceeds the emotional output of his previous film, THE KIDNAPPING OF MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ. VALLEY OF LOVE won’t give you all the answers, but in the wide, empty openness of Death Valley, it gives you the space to ponder some of the bigger questions, in really rather fine company. Bravo.