There’s a scene early on in Guillaume Nicloux’s new drama Valley of Love, where the cynical Gerard (played by Gérard Depardieu) dismisses his upcoming journey with the more optimistic Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) as merely an elaborate, foolish ploy to reunite the pair and force them to mourn the son they lost. As he details the naive expectations of what’s to come, it’s as if Nicloux himself is making a statement that this won’t be your typical road trip movie. Unfortunately, the listless narrative that follows proves that sometimes a little cliché is needed to build a compelling story.
Depardieu and Huppert star as a divorced couple from France, who are brought together in the United States following the untimely death of their son. Having taken his own life, he has left one letter each for his mother and father, with instructions for them to embark on a trip that will end in Death Valley on a specified date. When they arrive, he claims that he will miraculously appear to them. Still coming to terms with his unexplained suicide, Gerard and Isabelle must now put their differences aside to abide by his wishes in the slim chance that they may be reunited with their son.
When speaking of road trip films, the common phrase that is invoked is “the journey is more important than the destination”. Specifically, countless films have used the tried and true formula of an attitude-changing, friendship-building journey to great effect. In this instance however, Nicloux flips the script by packing much of the film’s emotional and philosophical impact into the final act. Indeed, while the sun-kissed desert vistas provide a scenic backdrop, the bulk of the film is weighed down by bland direction and dull plotting. As we follow the duo on their journey, we come across uneventful pit stops and meaningless encounters, while the details behind the breakdown of this family unit and their son’s suicide remain frustratingly vague. Admittedly, the film does recapture our interest when the more mystical elements of the premise come into play, but even this aspect feels only tentatively explored at best.
Of course, when you bring together two giants of French cinema, you expect to at least get some A-grade acting. And thankfully, neither Depardieu nor Huppert disappoint. In typical fashion, Huppert shows remarkable emotional acuity as she taps into her character’s uncontrollable maternal grief with open fragility. Meanwhile Depardieu delivers a deceptively unfussy performance as a man who puts up a tough facade to mask his own insecurities and worries. And together, they display the natural, tender chemistry of two people connected through a long history of life’s ups and downs. Indeed, towards the end of the film, Isabelle turns to Gerard and professes, “When you love someone once, you love him forever. You can only hate an ex you never really loved.” Uttered with casual sincerity by Huppert, it’s enough to make you wish you could have met this pair under livelier circumstances, rather than this dreary tale of death and loss.
Valley of Love opens in select theaters March 25, 2015.