One of the most interesting things about Valley of Love is the insertion of French actors into distinctly American locales. As an American, the film makes you feel somewhat embarrassed as you watch Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu come face to face with some of our more annoying cultural tendencies. Nothing is more frustrating than watching Americans embarrass themselves in front of foreigners by being hopelessly American. But despite this, it is entertaining to see two French actors completely out of their comfort zone, as their characteristically French aloofness clashes with our big smiles, strong handshakes, and persistent hospitality.
The story follows Gerard and Isabelle, who ostensibly keep their real names and identities, with only their personal histories changed for the sake of the story. The pair are long-divorced, but reunite under the hot Nevada sun at the posthumous request of their late son, who committed suicide several months prior. The two, particularly Isabelle, continue to struggle with their son’s death, and blame themselves for not being better parents. They had very little communication with him while he was alive, but they hope to find some kind of relief by following his requests. In letters that he sent to both of them, he asks that they meet at various locations in Death Valley over the course of a week. He promises that if they show up together, at the right spots, and at the right times, he will be able to return very briefly. Needless to say, Gerard is skeptical, and none too pleased to have to trek around the hot desert for days on end. Isabelle is more hopeful, and genuinely believes that this might be her one chance to reconnect with her dead son.
As previously stated, Valley of Love is most interesting when it shows these two famous French actors dealing with life in America. They meet a nosy, overly chatty couple who fawn over them. They deal with the extremities of Nevada’s climate (something that is absent in their native country). But these funny little encounters and circumstances do little to liven up a rather dull film. We watch as Isabelle and Gerard (who spends most of the film with his shirt off) sweat and walk; we listen to them complain about sweating and walking, and that’s about it. There are times when the film functions as an interesting character study, looking at two people who used to be in love, but now hate each other. They still have some feelings for one another, but whenever these come through, it does not last long before they return to bickering. The story gives us little more than a surface view of their relationship and past.
Director Guillaume Nicloux touches on issues of spirituality and the after-life, but only briefly and with little substance. This film could have been much better if it had asked more questions and provided fewer answers, but unfortunately, the plot is relatively straightforward, and does little to build on the initial premise. Both Huppert and Depardieu turn in good performances as expected, but the script provides little room for them to be exceptional. It’s not that Valley of Love is a bad film per se; it simply lacks the artistic vision needed to bring a contemplative film to life. There are plenty of beautiful shots of Death Valley, and the plot sounds intriguing on paper, but in practice the entire endeavor falls flat. What could have been a fascinating, contemplative character study with supernatural undertones turns out to be a rather slow trip to nowhere, and a waste of good talent.
Rating: ★★★ out of 5