Nicloux, who at 50 resembles a steeple-fingered intellectual of the old school, from his precise, considered diction to his frowning, high-foreheaded mien, says that, while it was tough, it encouraged a kind of existential phlegmatism. “After a while, your body gets used to it. The climate dictates how you respond; somehow your body creates its own rhythm. You can’t beat it, so don’t fight it.”
Valley of Love – Nicloux’s 12th feature – sends Depardieu lumbering around this furnace-like environment in the company of Isabelle Huppert, who seems appreciably less affected by the heat. They play a long-divorced couple – both actors, named Gérard and Isabelle – who are summoned to Death Valley by a mysterious note from their son, Michel, written before he killed himself. In it, he tells them that if they visit certain monuments in a certain order – a sort of sandblasted stations of the cross – he will reappear. With its pitiless sun, blazing into every corner, Death Valley is both the stage on which their needling interactions can play out, and a symbolic landscape of the uncanny.
But, as Nicloux is at pains to point out, Valley of Love is really about ghosts. Death Valley itself, he says, “is full of spirits”, and the film itself was triggered by his experience of “something quite odd” in the same canyons: a vision of his deceased father. Depardieu’s own tragedy also haunted the film: Nicloux says the actor “incorporated in his experiences with his son”, the actor Guillaume Depardieu, who died of pneumonia at 37 in 2008. “His reactions are something you can’t really act.” In a strange way, the film itself also has a ghost: what might have been if Nicloux’s original plans for the project – English dialogue, with Ryan O’Neal in the lead role – hadn’t fallen through.
Nicloux continues to ruminate. “There are certain places that have an effect on you that is very fundamental. If you manage to get rid of all the daily worries, they become a space that can liberate you from certain things. The forest also has this effect in me. The forest can also be a catalyst for other desires.”
It’s fortunate, then, that Nicloux has already completed another film since Valley of Love premiered at Cannes in 2015: The End, also featuring Depardieu, as a hunter lost in the primeval forest. Depardieu, says Nicloux, keeps his vêtements on in The End (let us be thankful for small mercies), something he singly fails to do in Valley of Love. In fact, Depardieu’s hulking, unclad torso possesses a poetry to it, something Nicloux is not slow to exploit – rather like Abel Ferrara’s Welcome to New York, the last Depardieu feature to be released in the UK, where he submits resignedly to a strip search at an American airport.
Nicloux, however, is careful to establish that Valley of Love is not aiming for voyeurism; this, he says, is simply the “natural order of things”. He draws a comparison between Depardieu and Michel Houellebecq, the subject/star of his last film, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, who rather obviously let his guard down by getting drunk in front of the camera. “Houellebecq gave me very unexpected things, too: he was defenceless, under the influence of alcohol. The love that you give the character allows them to put themselves in these very difficult positions.”
If Valley of Love shares anything with the Houellebecq film, it is this tricksy relationship with actuality: Houellebecq essentially played a version of himself, in an alternative statement of what happened during a celebrated period of “disappearance”. Depardieu and Huppert have never been married, of course, but their relationship goes way back to Bertrand Blier’s 70s road comedy Les Valseuses, as well as Maurice Pialat’s acclaimed 1980 relationship drama Loulou. (Another piece of connective tissue: Pialat’s widow, Sylvie, is a producer of Valley of Love, and has worked on four other of Nicloux’s films, including The End, Houellebecq and The Nun – which featured Huppert as a mother superior.)
So, with its chunky, mournful Depardieu, where does Valley of Love sit on the truth/fiction continuum? “There is a barrier between cinema and life, but that is the interesting thing. Cinema is a complete lie, but somewhere there may be truth.” Nicloux looks quizzical again. “That is the paradox: in cinema, you have to lie as sincerely as possible.”