Hooked on Film rating:
The first time you see Huppert, it’s from behind, walking down a sidewalk towards some destination. She’s wearing a light summer dress and pulling on a carry-on in what reveals itself to be a desert resort. Her entire body language shrieks disapproval, malcontent. Later on, we see her fumble to get a connection on her phone, barely even trying to establish any conversation with the American guests who approach her, and even disapproving of the food [“They call this a soup?” she snarls at a can of dried ramen.] She’s clearly not happy to come here. Soon, we’ll know why.
When we first see Depardieu, your heart breaks in two, and I’ll tell you why. This is the man of great physical stature, boyish face with unusual looks who brought enormous presence to his films with just an entrance. Not that he doesn’t do so here, but when you see just how much he’s aged and gained weight, you’ll see how shocking it is, that he’s almost shuffling his entire upper body, completely disproportionate to his lower body, to meet Huppert (not that she’s too happy to see him). Age is an unforgiving curse, and while Huppert only demonstrates a slight aging of her neck, her skin is a map of freckles, and her limbs are now those of a frail woman.
Even so, there is love between these two, who play versions of themselves. Following a simple plot heavy on dialogue that could have been written by Marguerite Duras at her most cathartic, Guillaume Nicloux directs these two French giants to perfection, having them reveal only what we need to know, in bits and pieces, scene after scene, a timed release of what lies beneath. This isn’t an ordinary meeting of a former man and wife. This is something completely different, and once elements of surrealism reminiscent of an Antonioni film film sets in, one is no longer sure what is true, what is false, and where is this going.
Gullaume Nicloux, who also experimented between reality and fiction with his 2013 movie The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, sits back and grants both actors ample ground to inhabit their roles and brings only a truly eye dropping cinematography to enhance scenes fraught with tension, stillness, and the vastness of the desert into play. It’s a gamble that pays off: both Depardieu and Huppert completely complement each other without risking parodying themselves. She emotes in high and low notes, going into nervous tangents that can barely contain her rage and disappointment and sheer hatred for the place she’s in.
Depardieu, on the other hand, is quieter. He let’s her have her cake and eat it, and reveals but very gradually, a softer, more caring man underneath his gruff appearance. Nicloux directs him ever so subtly for comic perfection when an American asks him for his autograph, having recognized him, Gerard Depardieu, from other movies, and Depardieu signs “Bob de Niro” before shuffling off back to Huppert. Later on, one sees his stoic pathos while reading the letter that has reconnected him with Isabelle, and then the beginnings of fear while encountering a strange girl who seems to know more than she reveals.
What does come clear is that both of them have deep regrets and unresolved wounds involving the writer of the letter and I don’t wish to disclose too much because with these movies it’s best to come in with a naked mind. Both characters will have some unexpected emotional peaks that will leave them shaken. The crux of the action is, can they survive it.
Valley of Love works as a variation of the stations of the cross, with its two leads revisiting the past while they veer closer to a significant revelation that will redeem or destroy them. It’s a devastating story of loss and the acknowledgement that this loss runs deeper than they can tolerate. Some missteps involving Americans most likely serve as a reminder of how intrusive we can be as a whole but other than that, this is a tragedy that unfolds in stages, and extends itself to the edges of the desert.