Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love drops audiences in the more than appropriately named Death Valley, which ultimately functions not only as the perfect mirror for the film’s official title, but as the most suitable setting for the interaction between two cinematic giants. It’s as if the landscape had opened itself up into an unadorned crater of a stage to allow Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu to mingle with one another. They star as a divorced couple named Isabelle and Gérard—a humble acknowledgement from Nicloux that any attempt to forget the stature of these actors will be futile. Isabelle and Gérard haven’t seen each other in a long time, but they’ve reunited in California at the behest of their recently deceased son, Michael, who left them letters before he committed suicide intimating that they forge a reunion and that, if they follow his guidelines, he would reappear to them.
Nicloux offers very little detail on who Michael was, apart from the fact that he’d once exiled himself in Death Valley. This is one of the film’s most gripping qualities, though it’s a reticence that Nicloux doesn’t manage to fully sustain. We know Michael was a photographer with a penchant for perverse promises, and a certain melancholic, quasi-gayness haunts his presence/absence, even if the film never outs him as gay—one that recalls the work of French writer Hervé Guibert, also a photographer with a knack for the epistolary, and who also let death bleed into his life and work with script-like precision.
For as long as Isabelle and Gérard refer to the contents of the letters without spelling them out, Valley of Love is drenched in a fertile gloominess. The film enables us to feel the emotional weight of a posthumous letter precisely because we can only imagine its contents, which sets up the disappointing moment when Nicloux reveals what the letters actually say by having mother and father read them out loud to each other. No level of poesis or literary dexterity, both of which the letters lack, could save the film from this faux pas. Suddenly, Michael is no longer a teasing angel, allegorical device, or Guibert-like provocateur, but a prankster with pedestrian writing skills.
The film only recovers from this blunder when it surrenders again to restraint in one of the most arresting sequences in contemporary cinema. Isabelle and Gérard have been following Michael’s script as best as they can, hoping to receive a sign from their son. They hike in the scorching desert heat, get irked by vulgar Americans at their hotel, and they yell, quarrel, and weep. Then, they threaten to give up. But one morning, when Isabelle is taking a break from the sun, Gérard explores one of the canyons in the area by himself and rushes back to Isabelle to tell her that Michael has appeared. She runs toward the canyon screaming her son’s name, only to find nothing. And it’s impossible not to be overcome by her despair, which suggests a doomed and childish refusal to accept a loss that certainly predates her son’s actual demise.
The entirety of Valley of Love is the groundwork for this sequence. Gérard begs Isabelle to believe that he saw their son, who held his hand and told him that he loved them and that he forgave them for their mistakes. While his account seems just as fantastic as Isabelle’s belief in a material encounter beyond the one that the ghostly son has so efficiently staged, the audience realizes, and accepts, that the most dignified way for the missing object to be visible again isn’t with its literal presence, but with its fantasy.