Wednesday, March 23, 2016

French film buff heaven: Huppert & Depardieu ground Guillaume Nicloux's VALLEY OF LOVE

An ex-Californian like me does not tend to think of "love" when he ponders Death Valley, located in the eastern part of the state near the Nevada border and considered by many to be the hottest place on earth. Yet that must have been the primary thing on the mind of French director Guillaume Nicloux when he titled his new film, which takes place there, VALLEY OF LOVE. What a strange and commanding -- the latter adjective thanks in large part to its two stars, Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu -- movie this is!

M. Nicloux, shown at left, has been making odd movies for nearly three decades now, very few of which I've seen (it's more the mainstream/arthouse foreign films that find their way into distribution over here). One of my favorites of his is the very dark and disturbing Hanging Offense (Cette femme-là), which I caught at one of the FSLC's Rendezvous-With French Cinemas more than a decade ago. In his new film, which he both wrote and directed (this filmmaker usually writes -- or at least co-writes or adapts -- all his work), a character named Isabelle and another named Gérard meet in Death Valley because their recently deceased son (he was a suicide) has written them each a letter asking them to come to this sunken, sweltering place, where he promises, if they arrive, he will, too.

Right: How would grieving parents -- even if, as it seems, they were not very good parents -- be able not to follow these instructions?  The actors appear to be playing some version of themselves here, and many of us will know that M. Depardieu lost his eldest son, Guillaume, to an untimely death from pneumonia at aged 37. Ms Huppert, so far as I know (TrustMovies tends not to much follow the personal lives of actors), has not lost a child, but she played a woman who is in the process of doing just that in the 2012 film, Dormant Beauty). Further, because these two French icons first worked together on Going Places (1974) and then again in Loulou (1980), the stage would seem set for something strangely personal, if nothing else.

The characters, Isabelle (above) and Gérard (below), do meet near the beginning of Valley of Love, and for the next 90 minutes, they spar and bond and break to spar again. The chemistry between these two is just about perfect. It's nothing hugely charismatic or showy, however, but rather the chemistry found in something closer to people who have known each other -- and very well -- over a long period of time. The behavior here is spot-on in terms of how former spouses act/react off each other.

That behavior mostly carries the movie, once Nicloux's slender plot is unveiled. What happens can be interpreted, I think, in various ways. The most obvious is that, yes, something otherworldly has taken place. But one might also say that these two highly vulnerable people have been somehow high-jacked -- self-brainwashed -- into belief.

Either way (or via some other theory), the movie works, thanks to the simplicity and truth in the actor's performances. If the death of a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent (I think it is), when that death is by suicide, this takes the situation into a realm beyond measure.

Yet that valley of the title seems somehow correct by film's end. Was that what the couple's son was attempting to provide the two? However you choose to view what happens here, the actors and M. Nicloux take us on the kind of metaphysical/mystical/geographical trip that you very rarely encounter, and for this alone, the film is worth seeing.

The vistas, as you might expect, and often breathtaking, and the movie offers up a palpable sense of transporting heat. The small supporting cast is fine, too, but the film belong to its iconic stars.

Valley of Love, from Strand Releasing, opens this Friday, March 25, in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. In the weeks to come, it will hit another ten cities and theaters. (Click here and then click on Screenings to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.) In any case, Strand usually and eventually offers DVD and streaming opportunities, so hang on, those of you who do not live near any of these dozen cities.

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