Isabelle and Gérard have both been summoned to the hot, arid climate of Death Valley by their son, who has committed suicide, and left a suicide note in the form of detailed constructions about 7 scenic locales mom and pop are to visit in the spectacularly scenic desert locale during November of 2014. There, he claims in the letter, all three will be re-united. How? Who knows; mom and pop are just supposed to believe it. It’s something you can imagine Claire Colburn having Drew Baylor do when she kicks the bucket, though because “Valley of Love” is a French art film rather than a Cameron Crowe romantic comedy, it is less about the undemandingly earnest and more about the “seriously, what’s going on here?” esoteric, and overlaid with an eerily elegiac musical score by Charles Ives rather than a series of sentimental pop songs. Epiphanies do not wait; merely mirages.
There is also the conspicuous detail that Isabelle and Gérard share the names of the people playing their parts – that is, French acting titans Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu. And they are actors, glimpsed in a brief encounter with a couple tourists that he first shuns and then invites. And while it is true that Depardieu’s own son died in 2008, this real life connection to their on screen characters is perfunctory rather than anything pertinent, just a little detail, one that looks good in the liner notes but holds no real significance on screen. Isabelle and Gérard as Isabelle and Gérard is ultimately, maybe even disappointingly, no meta-exercise, unless you want to read it as the movie confessing to the fact that its greatest strength is Huppert and Depardieu.
Writer/Director Guillaume Nicloux’s primary narrative device is to withhold. Though mother and father read the suicide notes they each received from their son aloud, there is little in the way of an explanation as to why their son took his life, perhaps because the parents don’t exactly know. They had mostly lost touch with him, another development never completely explained, and why would it be? These characters enter the moment aware of what has been done. This is why there are no flashbacks, no convenient moments of sitting down with random tourists and re-hashing the past. Even when they are forced into conversation with others, they reveal little beyond the most mundane, by which I mean the most superficial. They internalize the hard stuff, and this means that everything must be communicated through the performances.
Huppert and Depardieu pick up their characters at a point when the most torturous moments of their relationship have long since passed and they have settled into an acceptance of what they have become, at ease but also on guard, prone to familiar bickering that they are willing to let dissolve rather than go on in some relationship-y need to score points. In moments of weakness, Gérard makes half-hearted overtures about getting back together, and Isabelle humors him, never more so than in an immaculate shot where she wavers between a sad smile and a straight face as he pitifully considers whether or not to lean in for a kiss. But this isn’t the sort of movie where getting back together will solve things, just as the mystery of whether or not their deceased son will appear is not really answered.
They’ve come here for closure, but there is no logical closure, not even if the son tries to decree it from beyond the grave. No, there is only the passage of time. And it is the passage of time that can mend wounds, which is what Huppert and Depardieu gradually allow us to see in their performances, how they are two people who have never really patched up what ailed them, but have nonetheless been apart long enough to have been rehabilitated anyway, content in each other's company if never quite settled. And maybe, sadly, in the case of their son, that’s all they can hope for too.