Isabelle Huppert is the greatest actress in the world – I am contractually obligated by the Gods of Good Taste to mention that at every opportunity. There is simply not any way to deny that Isabelle Huppert is beyond brilliant in everything she does, from the beginnings of her career in the early 1970s, where she played beautiful young ingénues, to her current career, where she is the elderstatewoman of French cinema, and in a way, all of world cinema. 2016 was a big year for Huppert, with her brilliant performances in Things to Come and Elle. One film that is sometimes forgotten (maybe because it was released in France in 2015 and around the world in 2016) is Valley of Love, one of the most exquisitely strange film experiences I’ve had in a while.
In Valley of Love, we meet two characters – Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) and Gérard (Gérard Depardieu), two very famous actors that used to be a couple. Contrary to the fact that they are using their own names, neither Huppert or Depardieu are playing themselves, but rather characters that represent the idea of aging foreign actors in general. Isabelle and Gérard had a son named Michael that committed suicide six months earlier, and as per his final wish, they have to travel to Death Valley in California, where they are to visit five locations, where his spirit will appear to them. Part of the request is that both his parents, who have not seen each other in years, have to be there together. It is a simple enough request, and both parents agree – but are they really doing it only for their son? This is one of the major questions this film asks, and unfortunately it isn’t actually answered.
Isabelle Huppert is just a powerhouse of acting. I honestly cannot think of an actress that can do so much with so little. I hold Huppert in the same esteem as Tilda Swinton, and while Swinton’s brilliance lies in her extraordinary chameleon-like transformations into different characters, Huppert manages to find the smallest quirks in characters that are sometimes very similar to each other, even if they are all quite different deep down. Huppert is just incredible, and while Valley of Love is certainly not anywhere close to being on the same level as her towering performances in Things to Come and Elle, it is still a beautifully complex performance, and adds to her exquisitely broad range, only proving that she is the most brilliant actress working today. Her small nuances that she places into her performance are unlike anything. In a world where acting is seen as being dominated by excess and dramatics, Huppert dares to be subtle, which makes her moment of genuine hysterics in this film seem all the more haunting. If you’re not a fan of Isabelle Huppert yet, I suggest getting on the train now. It is never too late to adore that delightful and incredible Isabelle Huppert.
There isn’t any way to deny that Isabelle Huppert is an icon of French cinema, and in both films mentioned previously, she was paired with great French actors, but no one truly who matches her iconic status. In Valley of Love, however, she is paired with Gérard Depardieu, who actually is just as iconic as her. Perhaps he isn’t as brilliant of a performer, but he certainly is a great actor and despite recent controversy, we have to remember that he is still one of the greatest talents to ever come out of France. Valley of Love pairs Huppert and Depardieu for the first time in 35 years – they previously starred in Going Places in 1974 and Loulou in 1980. The chemistry between them is undeniable, and it would be wrong to not comment on the fact that Depardieu is a remarkable actor, and I will go so far as to say that he gives an even better performance in Valley of Love than Huppert.
This film is about both characters and their journeys to closure, but it is secretly Depardieu’s film – it is he that undertakes the biggest journey in this film and it is his arc that is the most heartbreaking. It are films like this that remind me that Depardieu is not just a novelty foreign actor, but rather a truly talented performer. There is something so poetic about seeing Gérard Depardieu, only wearing his boxers, coming to philosophical realizations in the middle of California. Depardieu is utterly brilliant in this film and I hope he too has a career resurgence in the near future, because it has certainly thrust Huppert back into the spotlight around the world, and Depardieu deserves to be taken more seriously as an actor.
Valley of Love is a French film – yet it doesn’t take place anywhere near France. It takes place in California, and I have never seen California in this way. This is a credit to the gorgeous cinematography by Christophe Offenstein (who is an underrated powerhouse on the French cinematography scene). Humid, sprawling and beautifully tense, this film makes great use of location. I can’t think of many films that make the desert look as beautiful as it is here. Offenstein adds so much meticulous detail to this film, creating a film so beautiful to look at. It reminds me quite a bit of Robby Müller, another foreign cinematographer who brought out similarly stark images of the desert in films like Paris, Texas (also a film by a foreign director taking place in the USA) and Dead Man (because how can I miss an opportunity to reference the greatest director in the world, Jim Jarmusch?). You’ll come for the performances but be captivated by the sheer beauty of this film’s visuals.
The other technical aspect of this film that I have to praise is the score. The score of a film is sometimes just an afterthought, with many filmmakers forgetting the fact that the score actually can set a particular tone for the film. The score to Valley of Love is looming, much like the specter of Michael, the dead son, who follows the characters around. It is intense but not overbearing, and it contributes to the sense of mystery present in this film. It is always something truly extraordinary when the score is almost a character within a film, and in Valley of Love, it follows Huppert and Depardieu closely, constantly reminding them and the audience of their search – whether it is for closure for their son or closure for themselves, no one knows.
Valley of Love is a strange film because as a piece of art, it qualifies as two kinds of film, both on polar opposites. The first is that of surrealism – Valley of Love is a great piece of surrealist filmmaking. Perhaps it isn’t on the same level as the films of David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky or Luis Buñuel, but is certainly has looming elements of the unknown not being too far from our characters. Valley of Love takes its subjects, places them in a very familiar cinematic location (California), but shows the location through a lens that isn’t very familiar in cinema, yet it isn’t completely abstract. Valley of Love has a surrealist tone that finally comes into its full realization towards the end, with the ending that is utterly puzzling. I am still not quite sure if I understand the final act of this film, but I do know that it left me exhilarated with its strange charms.
The other place Valley of Love qualifies is as a realist film. It is almost nihilistic in its simplicity and how it reflects real life. There is very little cinematically relevant about Valley of Love. It is a small and intimate film that just happens to take place in a huge and sprawling desert. The framing device of this film is the journey into Death Valley, but the core of this film lies in the interactions between Huppert and Depardieu, and their interactions with other characters. What makes this film so delightful is the small moments – swimming in the pool, not having phone reception, ordering a vegetarian hamburger. Its these moments that make Valley of Love such an intensely relatable film, and it reflects real life so wonderfully, and if not for the polarizing final act, it could’ve been a true slice of life narrative.
Valley of Love is a brilliant film. It is so beautiful to look at and it is exceptionally well-made. It is a film that I expect won’t be very widely seen, because there isn’t much appeal here to those who aren’t passionate about world cinema – but for those that do seek it out, they’ll find a touching and moving story about grief and loss, and finding the pleasure in tragedy. If anything, Valley of Love is worth it for the lead actors, and if you need further proof, just consider how they are credited simply as “Huppert” and “Depardieu” – if that doesn’t indicate that you are watching legends, then nothing else will.