It is too bad this grieving French mother was not in Death Valley for the decennial “Desert Bloom.” It would have been just the sort of sign she was hoping for. According to her son’s suicide notes, he promised to visit from beyond if she and his father (her ex) make a pilgrimage through the landmarks of Death Valley at certain appointed times. It seems unlikely, particularly to his father, but the guilt they carry compels them to do it anyway in Guillaume Nicloux’s “Valley of Love.”
It is one thing to give kids their space, but Isabelle and Gérard had not seen their son Michael in years. Each had later children with subsequent spouses, leaving Michael as a rather awkward reminder of their previous lives. There was also the business of his sexuality. Still, his partner reportedly never saw it coming. According to letters he wrote just before the end, Michael promises to appear to his parents if they stick to the itinerary he enclosed.
Whether it is because she is more inclined toward New Age hokum or she is just desperately grasping at straws, Isabelle is determined to follow Michael’s instructions to the letter. However, Gérard is planning to leave on the seventh day. That would seem like the most likely day for an appearance, but it was the only date he could book an appointment with a highly regarded oncology specialist. It is hard to argue with that, but Isabelle will try.
Ladies, this is a film for you, because there is an awful lot of man flesh to be seen within. Unfortunately, almost all of it is the shirtless Gérard Depardieu. Words fail to describe the spectacle. Still, he deserves credit for baring himself.
At one point, he says to Isabelle: “How can I be happy looking like this?” (Maybe he could refrain from gorging himself on Putin’s caviar?)
Although “Valley of Love” is nowhere near as self-referential as Nicloux’s previous film, “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq,” it is clearly no accident Depardieu and Huppert (who appeared together in Maurice Pialat’s “Loulou” and Bertrand Blier’s “Going Places”) are playing their namesakes.
While Nicloux might rely on their on-screen and off-screen reputations as a bit of character-establishing shorthand, they are largely able to transcend public personas and become credibly confused and bereaved parents. We really believe they really resent each other, yet still have some of the old feelings. Indeed, there is a reason why they are two of the most recognizable movie stars on the globe, regardless of the wear-and-tear they might show to varying degrees.
At the helm, Nicloux manages to walk a real tightrope, including enough supernatural elements to earn the film a berth at Sitges, yet never resorting to a traditional genre payoff. He maintains a mysteriously suggestive atmosphere that helps us buy into the dramatic possibilities. The desert is a mystical place, so why not?
Even without a wildflower explosion, cinematographer Christophe Offenstein makes the Death Valley vistas look spectacular (but also hot and dry). It is an indefinably odd film, but that is a good thing.
Recommended for patrons of French cinema and fans of the two stars, “Valley of Love” opens this Friday, March 25 in New York, at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com