Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Man Of Steel costars Kevin Costner and Diane Lane appearing together again in Let Him Go, we’re looking back at other onscreen star reunions.
When Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu co-starred in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou in 1980, they were already among the most notable French actors of their generation. Huppert got her initial break only a few years earlier, with a supporting role in Bertrand Blier’s anarchic sex comedy Going Places (1974)—a film that also featured Depardieu. But by the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, the two actors collectively appeared in three other competition selections (Huppert in The Heiresses and Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man For Himself, Depardieu in Alain Resnais’ Mon Oncle D’Amérique) along with sharing the screen in Pialat’s film.
Which is all to say that their reunion in Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley Of Love, playing a long-divorced pair of French actors named Isabelle and Gérard, has some history behind it. And though the two were never married in real life, there’s a real charge to seeing them get together on screen after 40-some years of parallel professional work. When they first sit down to catch up in the film, Isabelle says, without a hint of malice, “You’re looking well.” To which Gérard simply replies, “I got fat.”
The reason for the estranged couple’s reconnection is simple enough. After their son, Michael (who is never seen), died by suicide six months prior, they each received a letter from him detailing a precise itinerary of seven dates, times, and locations around Death Valley, and an injunction to be there at those dates. Only then, the letters say, will Michael be able to return, allowing the family to reunite, however briefly. Still wracked by grief and doubt, Isabelle and Gérard make the trek out to the scorching California desert to grant their son’s dying wish—and perhaps to purge their own lingering parental guilt as well.
For some directors, this quasi-mystical premise would be the mere starting point for a whole series of fantastical twists and emotionally fraught turns. But Nicloux, to his credit, plays the slim scenario with a disarming forthrightness, trusting his two legendary actors to hold the screen. His faith is not misplaced. There’s some amusing fish-out-of-water comedy based on Huppert’s and Depardieu’s interactions with vacationing Americans, including one man who only vaguely recognizes Gérard but still asks for his autograph. (Depardieu signs it “Bob De Niro.”) Mostly, though, it’s just a pleasure to wander alongside these two French greats. Over the course of the film, they ably cover a whole range of emotions and temperaments, from bitter anguish to steely sangfroid to aching vulnerability. At times, they don’t even seem to be playing their characters so much as embodying them.
As in Loulou, which includes a memorable scene of a bed frame collapsing under the two leads having sex, Valley Of Love displays a marked (though not prurient) focus on its actors’ wildly dissimilar physicalities. Nicloux delivers a number of limpid landscape compositions throughout, but some of the film’s most striking passages practically just document each actor’s gait as they walk alone, their uncertain steps accompanied by Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” Likewise, the film’s low-key plot developments mainly have to do with the various physical wounds and ailments that Isabelle and Gérard suffer in Death Valley—a location that, over the course of their week-long stay, becomes something like a purgatorial prison.
Inevitably, perhaps, the setting brings to mind Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, a film as justly famed for its explosive climax as for the sight of young couples making love across the desert sand. With this in mind, Valley Of Love’s title might seem somewhat ironic, since the film is entirely devoid of erotic spectacle, focused instead on parental anguish and middle-aged regret. But neither Nicloux nor his actors are after irony, let alone cheap cynicism; indeed, the film’s climax is movingly direct and even emotionally earnest. In bringing together Huppert and Depardieu, Valley Of Love ultimately conveys the sense of two people facing up to their legacies, perhaps regretting that they didn’t love well enough while they still had the chance.