Made before his enigmatic tour de force, The End, played the Edinburgh International Film Festival, Guillaume Nicloux released Valley of Love in a few select territories. This French language-feature marks the third screen collaboration between legendary stars Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert (1974’s Going Places and 1980’s Loulou). However, I would argue that Nicloux’s meta-narrative is their most challenging and rewarding collaboration.
Actors Isabelle and Gerard reunite in Death Valley upon the request of their son Michel – six months after he has committed suicide. The separated couple’s relationship strains as the letter requests they travel to various parts of the desert at set times with the promise of seeing their departed son again.
Like The End, the ponderous Valley of Love is a challenge to classify boasting some of the traits of a road movie laced with spiritual and supernatural undertones. Nicloux’s screenplay is a delight examining the culture clash between these two French heavyweights and small town California – but never plays this for cheap laughs – instead the sleepy, sun-baked desert setting makes for an unsettled, enigmatic locale for this tale of loss, reunion and heartbreak to unfold upon. Photographed with a subtle unease by Christophe Offenstein, the cinematographer emphasises the death in this barren depiction of the eerily quiet and near mythical landscape of Death Valley.
Nicloux excels when driving his narrative forward with an enigma and in this case it is the potential reunion between Isabelle, Gerard and their son. These French actors are forced to challenge their beliefs to comply with their late son’s wishes and Valley of Love becomes a powerful allegory of the lengths that grief will drive us to. However, this is an intelligently-structure and layered watch that drip-feeds the mythical into the narrative, ensuring we as an audience are torn between dream and reality.
Tensely shot scenes containing apparent ghostly presences and lonely children wandering the hotel exterior at night add to this other-worldly atmosphere coursing throughout Valley of Love – giving it a unique, challenging, and yet continually watchable substance. Performances from Depardieu and Huppert lend further credibility – Huppert’s Isabelle the more fragile and hopeful of the two, whilst the matter of fact Gerard is more enticed by the prospect of going home than following this wild goose chase. Nicloux’s cleverly plays with these assumptions as the narrative progresses, exploring the complex relationship each parent had with their child – particularly as the question of his sexuality is raised.
Valley of Love is an enigmatic tour de force that continues a thrilling winning streak for Nicloux – asserting him as one of France’s most exciting filmmakers. Unsettling cinematography paired with staggering performances from Huppert and Depardieu ensures that Valley of Love is one of the year’s strongest narrative features.
Release: 12th August 2016 (UK)