Small bird and giant, Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu, play out divorced love as two old friends, equally strong and fragile, bound by an unusual request from their deceased son – he has written a letter asking them to meet in Death Valley where he promises to reappear at one of its seven landmarks.
Their shared guilt is heavy as desert-heat. Neither have seen their son in a long time. He was sent away to boarding school at seven, and at sixteen decided he wanted to disconnect from his parents. The letter is written just before his planned death, and both see it as his attempt to re-unite his estranged parents, even if it is based on an unlikely reappearance. ‘It may sound like a joke’ he writes, ‘but I swear it’s the truth.’ Huppert and Depardieu only agree to meet to fulfill their son’s last wish.
Huppert is a dot on the landscape, arid as the valley itself, yet charged with reflective, compressed energy. Around her, the sand is her loss, and the wide skies, her remorse.’We all miss out on something,’ she says, as they stand in the part of the valley that’s below sea level. ‘We don’t know much about our own children’.
Depardieu’s clumsy pragmatism plunges deep: ‘What the hell are we doing here?’ he says after they greet each other, before pointing out the obvious: he has grown fat.
A Bergman-esque portrayal of a divorced couple shows that time has created a formal sweetness, alongside all the old irritations. At one point Huppert accuses Depardieu of having a borderline personality, to which he snaps ‘that’s taking the cake’.
Guillaume Nicloux directs a detached atmosphere in two locations: a hotel-complex and the Death Valley landscape. The motel is a bland world of palms, pools and parking lots. Guests are always keen to start conversations and there are inevitable misunderstandings.
Death Valley is eerily still, yet majestic to the point of dwarfing Huppert and Depardieu’s rationality: like them, we believe that their son could indeed show up, even as a ghost.
Ghostliness is enhanced by the music which is reminiscent of a 70s Claude Chabrol suspense-thriller. Intermittent and stretched-out, slow sounds are long and maudlin, indicating something may (or may not) happen. Depardieu and Huppert are stuck waiting and wanting, on sands and between rocks, signifying their grief and connecting us to our very own, possibly different sadness.
Director: Guillaume Nicloux (2015)