If there’s a certain momentousness to the onscreen reunion of Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu — 35 years after Maurice Pialat’s “Loulou” — everything else in Guillaume Nicloux’s cryptic curio “Valley of Love” works strenuously against any mounting sense of consequence. A lean, spirituality-inflected grief drama set in Death Valley and complicated by self-reflexive musings on both actors’ star personae, this agreeable muddling of the metaphysical with the just plain meta arguably isn’t best flattered by a competition slot in Cannes. Still, there are gentle rewards to be gained from the initially brittle, gradually tender rapport between two actors of contrasting greatness, appropriately cast as estranged partners working toward a shared understanding of the distance between them. Their combined marquee value, coupled with the U.S. setting, should intrigue boutique distribs, though few commercial peaks await this “Valley” beyond French borders.
For Nicloux, following last year’s eccentric, comically fabricated documentary “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq,” “Valley of Love” playfully extends his interest in the reconstruction of existing celebrity. Huppert — reteaming with the helmer after 2013’s bristly convent drama “The Nun” — and Depardieu play a pair of well-known French actors, named Isabelle and Gerard: They are sufficiently recognizable to attract one hapless American autograph hunter in the Eastern California desert, even if he can’t name any of their movies. (Gerard roguishly signs his name as “Bob De Niro”; when cheerily asked which one of the two is more popular in their home country, Isabelle curtly claims not to know.)
The brief references made to their respective careers make Isabelle and Gerard sound an awful lot like Huppert and Depardieu, but for their wholly invented personal history. Here, the two stars are long-divorced former spouses, brought unhappily together by the suicide of their adult son, Michael. “Valley of Love” thus plays out in a peculiar interstitial dimension between strange reality and familiar fiction; it therefore seems as appropriate a place as any to pursue the possibility of uncanny visitation. Both parents have received a letter from Michael — presumably penned before his death six months prior, though enigmatically referring to the event in the past tense — instructing them to meet in Death Valley on a specific November date, whereupon he claims he will briefly appear to them.
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Whether or not the invitation has been issued with an earnestly mystic sense of purpose, or as a ruse to get the two together to belatedly process their joint loss, is hard to discern. Given no voice or face in the proceedings, Michael is more a human MacGuffin than an emotionally charged absence, as it emerges that Gerard and Isabelle were scarcely less estranged from him than they have been from each other. (Isabelle did not even attend his funeral; based on no evidence more substantial than his homosexuality, she cluelessly wonders if he had AIDS.)
Both parents appear to have left their son behind in a previous life since eclipsed by new-albeit-transitory relationships and undertakings; often, these stars speak of episodes in their respective pasts as they would roles previously played on screen. Though the performance process is never addressed in Nicloux’s script, its characters’ stumbling acceptance of loss appears delayed by the alternating identities — and, by extension, realities — maintained by those used to enacting other lives for a living. “People change partners but stay themselves,” Gerard insists at one point, but he and Isabelle seem far from fixed personalities.
Having just played the remote object of mourning in another Cannes entry, Joachim Trier’s family melodrama “Louder Than Bombs,” Huppert shifts fluidly to the role of the equally inscrutable mourner. The vulnerably prickly, passive-aggressive bemusement at everyday life that is one of her keenest gifts as a performer gains added comic bite in the alien context of the Death Valley tourist circuit; a scene of Isabelle patently freezing through a few lines of innocuous small talk with a fellow hotel guest is a throwaway gem. Her cool countenance is ideally opposed by Depardieu’s wheezing, woebegone delivery and honestly disarranged demeanor. As in Abel Ferrara’s “Welcome to New York,” the actor’s saggy physique comes in for self-aware scrutiny: “I got fat,” he admits to his ex, to which her acid response is, “Whatever makes you happy.”
As Isabelle and Gerard fleetingly recall what bonded them in the first place, she takes on some of his coarseness as his nerves stand a little more reactively on edge. Having matched these two titans to such lively effect, however, “Valley of Love” ultimately runs out of psychological terrain for them to cover. The ambiguously supernatural tease of Nicloux’s third act, complete with whispery sandstone wanderings that recall “The Tree of Life” with cut-rate catharsis, leaves their relationship in unilluminating limbo, while their lives beyond Death Valley seem largely theoretical constructs. Isabelle is plagued by nightmares as the trip progresses; their ill-defined quest proceeds with its own looped, irrational dream logic, giving the narrative any number of interpretive get-out clauses.
Certainly, Nicloux’s appropriation of shimmeringly atonal, semi-hymnal compositions by American modernist composer Charles Ives supports the possibility that the eponymous, amorous Valley may be an ethereal parallel universe of sorts. Christophe Offenstein’s serene widescreen lensing, on the other hand, is brightly defined as can be, offering its characters little reprieve from the coruscating California sun.