“Valley of Love” stars Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu as a divorced couple who reunite in the California desert at the request of their dead son, whose suicide letter hinted at a ghostly visitation. The French acting giants haven’t appeared onscreen together since 1980’s “Loulou,” and, for some, that will be reason enough to see this two-hander.
But by failing to give them a more substantial and gripping story, the film excels as an acting showcase only.
Writer-director Guillaume Nicloux (“The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq”) has made a psychological drama of the grieving-parent kind and, more tentatively, a metaphysical thriller.
His tone is humane and thoughtful, and he sometimes intensifies the atmosphere by inserting something eerie a la Lynch or suggesting alienation Antonioni-style. Death Valley, whose canyons, heat and dramatic moniker seem conducive to existential crises, is the setting.
Huppert and Depardieu play fictional versions of themselves. Their characters, named Isabelle and Gerard, are respected French actors and former spouses whose adult son, Michael, recently killed himself.
In letters, Michael told both parents to visit Death Valley, where he would appear to them. Gerard and Isabelle don’t know what that meant, but seeking answers, closure, and, perhaps, miracles, they go along.
Following some reacquaintance dialogue — “I got fat,” Gerard says; “Whatever makes you happy,” Isabelle replies — the two talk about Michael, about whom each knew sadly little, and about whether they were responsible for his suicide. They share snippets about their current lives. They touch on their own mortality. Their personalities clash.
Midway, the weirdness begins. Isabel has a particularly distressing nightmare, and strange things happen to her skin. Gerard has an eerie encounter on the tennis court.
Is Michael making good on his supernatural promise? The signs continue as the pair visit landmarks, per Michael’s instructions.
Depardieu and Huppert are restrained and affectingly understated when portraying despair, hope, estrangement and their characters’ tender affection for each other.
Depardieu, famed for his excesses, can be a nuanced, poignant actor. Here, he combines a bad-boy air with a world-weariness, sometimes comically.
Huppert, combining her character’s uncontainable anguish and what director Michael Haneke has described as the actress’ “icy intellectualism,” triumphs as a sophisticated artist and grief- and guilt-plagued mother coming to terms with her loss.
While intriguing, the movie simply isn’t penetrating or profound. The psychological drama needs to go deeper, and the paranormal scenes prove merely teasing.
Nicloux’s decision to give the protagonists the names of the stars playing them underscores their superior performances. Ultimately, the film demonstrates what good actors can, and cannot, do with so-so material.
Valley of Love
Two and a half stars
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Gerard Depardieu
Written and directed by: Guillaume Nicloux
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes