Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Nov 21, 2015 11:06 am 
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[Included in the San Francisco Film Society's November 2015 series of "French Cinema Now." For my other coverage of this series see here. ] Also included in FSLC-UniFrance's 2016 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

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GÉRARD DEPARDIEU AND ISABELLE HUPPERT IN VALLEY OF LOVE

Wandering in the desert to please a dead son

From 2015 Cannes Competition and not the worst of the group, it has been noted (Van Sant's other two-hander, Sea of Trees, wins that hands-down) comes Guillaume Nicloux's slight, if wearisome, effort. Take two French cinema icons, Isabelle Huppert (62) and Gérard Depardieu (66), keep their own first names and personalities, mix in flimsy backstories, making them a long divorced couple. Add a sad, "spiritual" pretext: their estranged gay son, a recent suicide, has summoned them from beyond the grave in letters they've recently received. And plunk them down in California's Death Valley in the summertime, where the son, the unseen "Michael," has given "Isabelle" and "Gérard" a series of tourist sites and times to show up, promising to "appear" to them. Add scenery, digs at Americans, a few pseudo-Lynchian touches. And what do you get? Ninety minutes with two very interesting actors (who haven't been together since the late Maurice Pialat's 1980 gangster romance Loulou) with not enough to do. (This new film was produced by Pialat's widow, Sylvie.)

While more known for a noir focus, Nicloux has recently exhibited a taste for playing around with celebrity, shown in his recent The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, written by and starring the said Houellebecq. Here, the tiny, dry, pouty Huppert, who seems to skip around the scalding desert settings with relative ease, makes a startling contrast to the gigantic, obese, wheezing, plain-spoken Depardieu. "Isabelle" seems more convinced some spiritual event will occur. The desert is, arguably, a spiritual place. "Gérard," whose bulging gut and naked torso are seen even more often here than in the actor's recent star turn as a Dominique Strauss-Kahn stand-in in Abel Ferrara's considerably more interesting Welcome to New York, says it's all just "sand."

The directness of Depardieu's self-impersonation here shows early on when "Isabelle" asks him how he's been these last three-plus decades. He says "I've gotten fat." She says "Whatever pleases you." He answers, "How could it possibly please me?" At first, the two actors' charisma, presence, and ease in front of the camera are exciting and hopeful. But there's never enough happening; Nicloux relies entirely too much on the mere presence of his stars, and has too little of his own to add.

And some of it is predictable and clichéd. The choice, to begin with, of Death Valley, beloved of Antonioni and other European cineastes as a place for mystery and magic to happen; it often doesn't. Great vistas overwhelm dialogue; heat brings action to a standstill. The classic dumb American comes up to the couple knowing they're famous French actors and asks "Gérard" for his autograph. He signs it "Bob De Niro," which later that evening gets an angry reaction from the duped chap. "Isabelle" sniffs disapprovingly at goods in a local convenience store but winds up at one point sipping prefabricated noodles in a cup sitting in bed, watching an infomercial. But these light, humorous touches are undermined by the film's lugubrious obsession with "Michael's" imposed schedule, which becomes like Stations of the Cross given the extreme heat, especially for "Gérard." Transfportion between Stations however is by big "Gérard"-piloted SUV -- only the spartan "Isabelle," who's also a vegetarian, nixes use of air conditioning.

Despite all this both, sleeping side by side in a shared motel room, soften and warm toward each other as the action unreels, and "Gérard" reveals he's sick, though he says he still feels fine. Unfortunately, the tight-lipped dialogue leads to no other big personal revelations from the two characters. They seem to have no lasting relationships since the divorce to report. It appears both virtually abandoned "Michael" early on, that being a possible element in his final depression, experienced while living with a boyfriend in San Francisco. "Gérard" knew "Michael" at least well enough to hotly deny "Isabelle's" suggestion he might have had AIDS; she admits she didn't see him at all for seven years and didn't even attend his funeral. This project seems partly undertaken as a way to seek forgiveness, and "Michael" may be inclined to give that. Meanwhile "Isabelle" has sore rings around her ankles, and "Gérard" develops them around his wrists: bad parenting stigmata?

A strange, creepy late-night encounter between an undershorts-clad "Gérard" and a misshapen young woman in the motel tennis court is the main qualifier for the term "Lynchian" or "pseudo-Lynchian" to Valley of Love. But this is not Lynch or sub-Lynch. The best it has to offer is celebrity, stark scenery harshly photographed in wide screen format by dp Christophe Offenstein, and the eerie musings of modernist American composer Charles Ives. Don't bother. Life is short.

Valley of Love, 92 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 2015.; about ten festivals, including London, Warsaw, Vienna, Stockholm and Chicago. French theatrical release 17 June (AlloCiné press rating: 3.4). UK, 20 Nov. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now series (Vogue Theater, Nov. 19-22) , showing Nov. 22 at 1:30 p.m.Also the FSLC-UniFrance 2016 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema's Opening Night film, Thurs. Mar. 3, 2016 at 6:00 p.m. with an introduction only by Isabelle Huppert and Guillaume Nicloux. Kurt Brokow tells an interesting story about Zabriskie Point in is Rendez-Vous review of Valle of Love here. Strand Releasing is bringing out this film in the US and it opens in NY at the Film Society of Lincoln Center 25 Mar. 2016.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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