It's telling of the parabolic nature of Guillaume Nicloux's "Valley of Love" that the specified non-believer of the couple (Gerard Depardieu basically playing himself) is the one eventually shown the spiritual majesties of the other side. Guffawing and obese, he's been dragged to Death Valley by his ex-wife (Isabelle Huppert also playing a variation of herself) in the hopes of reconnecting with the dead spirit of their deceased son. For the first two-thirds of the film, "Valley of Love" concerns itself with the discordant nature of this middle-aged couple, divorced and basically unhappy in each other's company. To make matters worse, the setting is Death Valley's scorched barrens of land, offering nothing but repulsive heat and non-descript tourist motels. Nothing too extraordinary happens, yet part of the film's resplendence lies in the natural and lived-in performances from two of France's most recognizable movie stars. Then, things turn a bit metaphysical and "Valley of Love" slinks towards a conclusion that's both breathless in its audacity and mysterious in the way it can draw completely new variations on grief and the hollow center it often leaves behind.
Opening with a long steadicam shot that simply follows behind Huppert as she walks to her motel room across a winding sidewalk, "Valley of Love", doesn't get any more urgent after Gerard (Depardieu) arrives. This same unbroken, unhurried camera movement is duplicated later in the film, reversed to follow Gerard through the carpeted hallways of their motel and eventually outside to enjoy a smoke. The couple dine together, spend time at the motel pool (where Depardieu gets recognized by a man and then insults him by signing his autograph request with Robert DeNiro's name) and travel to select locations in the Valley where they await a sign from their son who committed suicide years ago and then promised to return on the given dates. The couple re-read their son's cryptic letters. They ponder on what type of person he really was, as both confess they didn't really know him after all. This lamentation of a child lost and a marriage imploded hang over the first half of the film. Completely devoid of fashionable performances, both Huppert and Depardieu exert a veteran calm that not only plays right into their roles as recognizable French faces lost in America, but adds gravity to the weary and low-key atmosphere of the entire film. Then, sudden unexplained events occur... once right after the aforementioned long shot that follows Depardieu outside Huppert's motel room window and the second at the very end.... and "Valley of Love" turns into something more than the study of a couple hoping, searching for answers and ultimately doubting their marital time together.
The French are known for their penchant to fly outside the boundaries of reality-based cinema. Where "Valley of Love" succeeds in its metaphysical nature and other recent examples have failed miserably (such as Pascal Ferran's abysmal "Bird People"), a majority of the credit has to go to the methodical way Nicloux builds a sense of mounting frustration between Depardieu and Huppert. She calls him fat and he replies that, "yes, he knows he is". They are endlessly surrounded by clueless tourists or the oddball outcast who seems right at home on a scorched patch of earth yelling at televised baseball games in the motel restaurant. Life, love, habits and their own patience has run out with each other over the years. All of this is made candidly tactile throughout the first half of "Valley of Love" so that when narrative (and our own disbelief) about why they're there together begins to take shape, it washes over you with modulated force. Maybe there is something there or maybe it's all in the minds of grieving parents who simply begin to project their desires onto the blank canvas of Death Valley. Either way, "Valley of Love" proves to be a rewarding, evocative masterpiece.