Depardieu sweats it out in 'Valley of Love' as Cannes endures ‘Chronic’ pain
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French cinema icons Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu reunite on screen after 35 years in Guillaume Nicloux’s sweltering “Valley of Love”, while Tim Roth excels as a palliative care worker with a terrible burden in Michel Franco’s “Chronic”.
Cannes’ closing ceremony is still two days away, but the festival has already delivered its first verdict: Dixie, the four-legged protagonist of Miguel Gomes’s six-hour plus epic “Arabian Nights”, has won the coveted Palme Dog, rewarding the best canine performance. The Maltese poodle topped a highly competitive field that included a human-turned-mongrel in Yorgos Lanthimos’s surreal “The Lobster” and neo-Nazi Rottweilers in the “Green Room”, a grisly punk thriller directed by Jeremy Saulnier.
One dog that never really got a chance to prove its acting prowess made a brief and gruesome appearance in Guillaume Nicloux’s “Valley of Love”, which premiered on Friday. France’s fifth competition entry reunites film legends Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu, 35 years after they last appeared together in Maurice Pialat’s “Loulou”. The contrast and evolving relationship between the brittle Huppert and her bulging, panting, and profusely sweating partner is the film’s main strength and raison d’être.
“Valley of Love” revolves around two well-known French actors called Isabelle (Huppert) and Gérard (Depardieu), a long-divorced couple summoned to California’s Death Valley by their deceased son Michael. Before taking his own life, Michael sent both parents a letter instructing them to visit the valley’s key landmarks on a specific date, whereupon he plans to “reappear”. It is not clear why Michael has committed suicide, nor what he has in mind by staging this confrontation between his estranged parents.
The French director pursues a typically European fascination with the Death Valley’s magical landscapes and unforgiving light. Though hardly prize-worthy material, “Valley of Love” is a pleasantly quaint road movie, which gains in strength as Isabelle and Gérard gradually draw closer. There are plenty of touchingly comical scenes, as when the pair debate whether it is right to throw bread crumbs at lizards, though the dialogue never digs deep into the characters’ psychology. Some critics have lamented Nicloux’s failure to follow up on brief moments when the film hints at a supernatural turn, but the hints were enough for me.
Tim Roth tackles terminal pain
Huppert’s passive-aggressive handling of casual small talk in the opening scenes offers some of the movie’s best lines. There were similar instances of annoyingly inquisitive conversation with self-obsessed characters in the following competition entry, “Chronic”, though its protagonist cuts a very different figure. “Chronic” stars British actor Tim Roth as a nurse for terminally ill patients. Set in the suburbs of Los Angeles, it is the first English-language feature by Mexican director Michel Franco.
Three years ago, Roth chaired the Un Certain Regard jury, which awarded its top prize to Franco’s “After Lucia”, a harrowing high-school bullying drama. Roth was so impressed with the film he asked the Mexican director to make another one for him. “Chronic” puts the same austerity, unflinching realism and rigorous control to work on another sombre subject. It is a bleak but lucid study of a scarred man’s efforts to find a form of closure in his selfless dedication to others.
Roth fits Franco’s design perfectly, producing a subtle, restrained and yet deeply moving performance as the soft-spoken nurse David. His character is tactful and conscientious. But he becomes too invested in his patients’ care, for reasons that the film conveys with intelligence. Some viewers were clearly upset by the grim, unrelenting depiction of life’s final stages, including footage of David wiping excrement off a dying lady’s legs. But there is beauty in his gentleness and compassion. It is a pity Franco’s subtlety deserts him at the very end. The final scene in “After Lucia” left one still shuddering days later. The director has gone for more shock in “Chronic”, but this time it’s a misfire.