Interview: Guillaume Nicloux discusses death and Depardieu in the Valley of Love
Ivan Radford | On 11, Aug 2016
Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu reunite on screen for a probing drama about love and loss in Valley of Love, out on VOD and in cinemas this weekend.
The film follows an estranged husband and wife, who are brought back together by their son, who invites them to Death Valley, California. The mystery? He committed suicide six months ago.
For writer and director Guillaume Nicloux, the story began with his own trip to the valley, which left its emotional impact on the filmmaker.
“When I came back, I started writing, almost automatic writing,” he tells us. “I didn’t necessarily choose the story, but the story chose me. It just came out – I just follow the pencil, so I discover what I’m writing.”
He speaks exactly how you imagine a French director who writes his films using Freudian techniques to access his creative subconscious would speak. Before we start talking, he asks if he can smoke inside the hotel. Almost immediately, he lights up, taking thoughtful drags as his translator relays questions and answers back and forth.
The first day of writing the film was very fast, he explains, but he made another movie before coming back to the script and rewriting it. At that point, he knew Gerard Depardieu would be his male lead.
How did the script change? Isabelle feels like the heart of the story, something that Nicloux generally agrees with. (The pair worked together before on The Nun in 2013, which was nominated for a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.)
“The first version, I’d asked Isabelle Huppert and she had already accepted, so she was always going to be in the film.”
“Then when I came back to it, I could write for both characters,” he explains.
After meeting with Depardieu, he wanted to make the character as emotionally close to the real life man as possible. And so we have two veteran actors called Isabelle and Gerard, reuniting after some time apart – played by Isabelle and Gerard, who themselves are reuniting almost 30 years after their co-starred in Maurice Pialat’s Loulou.
“It was like trespassing into a forbidden area of themselves, but also it was having a reference to a film they made 30 years ago,” enthuses Guillaume, “so there’s this kind of play between those things. You can imagine that they did have a son – and Gerard did have a son who did die, so there’s this whole shadow of reality throughout.”
It’s easy to read into films such autobiographical connections. How sensitive was the director to that?
“It’s strange,” he reflects, inhaling once more. “I made the film to a reaction to my own father passing and then, I reversed it in a way, by creating the father who loses the son. It’s that whole grieving… confusion, in a way.”
“The place creates an emotional response in everybody, if you stay longer than two days…”
Confusion is the word some may use when watching Valley of Love. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015, but the movie avoids offering any easy answers to its viewers.
“I don’t like ready-made solutions,” says Guillaume, with a faint trace of a smile.
“I think it’s very troubling for an atheist like me to imagine this kind of dimension of other. What is that? How do you have a relationship with it? How do you decide what the, not afterlife, but what happens… The film asks more questions than it answers. The most important thing is how you then interpret it and the answer you give. I understand people might find it quite frustrating to leave it open, because they like to be certain about something and understand. I’d rather just understand.”
One thing that’s undeniable, though, is the eerie feeling he captures. When Michael possibly grabs Isabelle’s feet at one point, it almost feels like a horror movie, with our couple haunted by the unsettling memory of their son.
“I agree!” nods Guillaume.
The wide, remote landscape, meanwhile, only intensifies the intimacy of this humid two-hander – not unlike the bizarre hotel room in which we sit, which has the walls covered in paper designed to look like we’re in a forest. It’s simultaneously open and closed. Guillaume, naturally, loves it. He jokes about being inspired by the room to write a new movie.
What is next? He’s not sure. Valley of Love marks “the end of a cycle”, he notes. It follows The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq and The End, which both share Valley’s sense of meta-filmmaking, despite being very different in subject.
While the room may enchant him to some degree, though, it’s not a patch on the impact Death Valley had.
“The place is so powerful that it creates an emotional response in everybody, if you stay longer than two days,” he muses. “The place takes over. In a way, each person responds to it differently. It’s very strange, because you’re in this space that has an infinite vista, there’s a horizon as far as you can see, but at the same time, you have this sense of claustrophobia.”
How did the actors respond?
“Gerard had a very particular reaction, because the film was forcing him to go back into a drama that he’d already lived,” explains the director. “And he’s got quite a particular relationship with death, so he’s not afraid of it, but the suffering.”
“Death is inevitable, we’re all going to die,” Guillaume continues, become more pensive the more he smokes, “but it’s the suffering that’s difficult to accept. We can escape suffering, we can try and master that, but you can’t master death.”
He exhales and smiles.
“This is a very nice discussion! I’m very happy to talk about this!”
Valley of Love is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.