Valley of Love

 

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A film that touches greatness before losing its way.

 
Valley of Love

 

Although well established in his own country, until now the French writer/director Guillaume Nicloux was only known here for his undervalued period drama The Nun (2013), based on Diderot's La Religieuse. Here he is reunited with that film's star, Isabelle Huppert, in a work of a very different kind. However, it is not their reunion that explains the distribution here of this contemporary American-set piece, but the fact that it also reunites Huppert with an equally famous French actor, Gérard Depardieu.

 

Despite the setting - the film was shot in Death Valley with striking locations that are never indulged for their own sake - this is a very French work.  It concerns two actors who, once married, meet again after many years following the suicide of their gay son who had been living in San Francisco and had been neglected by both of his parents. Letters written just ahead of his death beg that they both meet up in Death Valley on a prescribed date and follow a week's schedule stipulated by him. This is linked to the son's belief that if this is done they will briefly see him there, just as he will see them. The father in particular does not believe in this mystical possibility, but agreeing to carry out this last request is triggered in large part by their sense of guilt.

 

Valley of Love is almost a two-hander since other figures appear only briefly and we follow the parents throughout the week. We may wonder where if anywhere all this is leading, but essentially this is a subtle, detailed portrait of a former couple who have gone on to other relationships but are still linked by their past feelings and their memories as well as by their failure as parents. In Depardieu's case the loss in very different circumstances of his own son Guillaume may add to the poignancy of his portrayal but, leaving that aside, his is undoubtedly a beautifully judged performance. Even so, it is Huppert, magnificently in her element, who steals the film bringing out the complex bond between the two main characters and showing turn by turn the anger, the resentment, the tenderness and the rapport.

 

This aspect of the film is great and fully realised by Nicloux and his players and one is ready to accept the extreme heat indicated even if this California in November. That could be a kind of symbolism and it enables Nicloux to introduce possible hallucinations believably. But, when a dead girl makes an appearance that does not seem dreamlike, we sense an uneasy lurch into something vaguely surreal or spiritual. Ultimately the film seems to go fully in that direction although another reading is possible which, if intended, needs to be more clearly defined. All of these elements make for an unsatisfactory ultimate experience at odds with the wonderfully persuasive interplay of character. Nevertheless, at its best this film is special and admirers of Huppert and Depardieu should not miss these performances.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Gérard Depardieu, Aurélia Thierrée, Dan Warner.

 

Dir Guillaume Nicloux, Pro Sylvie Pialat and Benoît Quainon, Screenplay Guillaume Nicloux, Ph Christophe Offenstein, Art Dir Olivier Radot, Ed Guy Lecorne, Music Charles Ives, Costumes Anaïs Romand.

 

Les Films du Worso/LGM Cinéma/Scope Pictures/France 3 Cinéma/DD Productions/Cinéfeel Prod-Curzon Artificial Eye.
92 mins. France/Belgium. 2015. Rel: 12 August 2016. Cert. 15.