“People Assume That I am ‘Isabelle'”: Isabelle Huppert on the Metaphysical Desert Drama, Valley of Love
Playing divorced parents embarking on a strange journey into Death Valley, Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu bring an easy chemistry and rich shared experience to Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, opening today in the States from Strand. They both play famous actors, one a skeptic and one a life-after-death believer, yoked together on a road trip conceived by their son, who committed suicide in San Francisco several months earlier. He’s written them both letters and given them a map to seven locations, telling them in his posthumously received correspondence that he’ll appear to them at one of the stops. The premise is somewhat ludicrous — or, at least, Depardieu’s character thinks so — but the directive reconnects the couple, who grapple, along the way, with crises of faith, impending mortality and the urge to play practical jokes on clueless American tourists. It’s all set in solar-blasted desert landscape alternately mythic and, with its enervated tourist spots, somewhat sad, and the picture summons up references ranging from Zabriskie Point to, in late moments, Don’t Look Now. (Vadim Rizov reviewed Valley of Love for Filmmaker here.)
Valley of Love is a film obsessed with backstories, and the idea of backstories. Long divorced, each character has had his or her own separate and fraught relationship with their son — histories teased out in the digressive rhythms of the two performances. And by casting these two icons of French cinema, actors who appeared memorably together in Bertrand Blier’s 1974 film Going Places and Maurice Pialat’s 1980 film, Loulou, as thespians who could be viewed as playing versions of themselves (an interpretation Huppert argues with below), Nicloux imbues his film with a kind of lived-in sense of French cinema history. All of that said, this is no tony Gallic import. Valley of Love caused plenty of head-scratching at Cannes last year; it’s a film not afraid to try to freak you out.
I sat down with Huppert earlier this month at New York’s Parker Meridian to discuss her collaborations with Nicloux and Depardieu, her approach to rehearsal, and why, in this film, she’s “not Isabelle.”
Filmmaker: To begin, what attracted you to this movie?
Huppert: I had done another film with Guillaume before, The Nun. As I worked with him finishing the film, he talked to me about this project, which I thought immediately was quite original. It was just a couple in the middle of nowhere. And not any nowhere, but a very sort of specific nowhere — Death Valley. I thought it was a great idea to have a very intimate story in such a majestic landscape. And then, I read the script, and it was really very good. The dialogue was very good and very simple — very light, even though the situation’s not light. It’s very deep, [with] so much questioning about this situation. I thought there was something quite inspiring. I mean, [there were] so many reasons for me to do the film.
Filmmaker: Did the scenario arise out of any earlier conversations you had with Guillaume?
Huppert: No, no, no. Guillame is not this [kind of] director. He would have an idea and you don’t what [it is]. That’s what I like about him. It’s hard to understand the original idea, and you don’t want to really understand it. He said in the course of events that it had to do something with his own father, but I don’t know. I don’t know how he had this very strange idea. I have no idea.
Filmmaker: You mentioned the landscape, which is very much its own character working on a physical level as well as a metaphoric level.
Filmmaker: How did being in that landscape, that environment, affect your work?
Huppert: Well, what affected our work was the heat. What makes [Death Valley] so special is the heat, precisely, because it’s completely inhuman just to work there for three weeks in this heat. I had been there before as a tourist for two or three days, but to work there, to behave like a normal person in this kind of environment, it was very, very special. It was so inspiring. You feel that [the heat] is so much a part of the process. And [the landscape] is not there [in the film] as a tourist postcard. It’s there also as a metaphor. It makes that unlikely story of this boy who asks his parents to be there [in Death Valley], who said to his parents that he’s going to appear again, it makes that story believable. Only a landscape like this can make that believable because you are in a super dimension of the human consciousness, in a way. Everything’s possible.
Filmmaker: I don’t know what the budget was. I assume it was maybe not so big.
Huppert: Not so small. Normal.
Filmmaker: In terms of physically dealing with the heat, were you just out there all day? Did you have beautiful air-conditioned trailers?
Huppert: No, normal trailers. But the air conditioning in the hotel, the noise was so unbearable that I cut the air conditioning in my room. I had to choose between the noise and the cool. I chose the silence.
Filmmaker: Working with Gérard, as you’ve done at least a couple of times, what degree does your previous work with him form a kind of foundation for this film, or maybe even a backstory? What degree are you perhaps referencing or thinking about your history of performance together?
Huppert: Gérard is Gérard, and I am me. I think we really act well together. We have the same way of doing it — not asking the wrong questions, or any questions at all before doing the job. We take it really easy, and we have the same way to take it easy. And I like to play with him, and I guess he likes to play with me. We never said, how are we going to do that scene, what does it mean? None of this bullshit, you know? We’re just doing it, and that’s it.
Filmmaker: There are two huge backstories in the movie, which are the relationships your and Gerard’s character each had with your deceased son. What degree did you, and you and Guillaume, feel you had to fill in all those blanks of that history?
Huppert: For the spectator, Guillaume likes to play with the nonfiction aspect of our relation because we did [Maurice Pialot’s] Loulou and so, let’s say we could have had a child together. But for us, it doesn’t really intervene, you know? The funny thing is that, at least in France, everybody assumed that [his character] is Gérard and I am Isabelle. But we never call each other Gérard or Isabelle during the film. So it’s very, very strange. Only at the very end, when we fight together, and I get hysterical, in the middle of this fight I call him Gérard. But before, nothing says that he’s Gérard and this is Isabelle. So it’s very strange. It’s in so many people’s imagination that we are necessarily Gérard and Isabelle because we were together before. But we are not Gérard nor Isabelle in the film. If you watch the film. Nobody says that.
Filmmaker: Well, no one says “Isabelle,” but I did notice the moment that you said “Gérard.”
Huppert: Yeah, but only near the very end. Okay, so let’s say he’s Gérard. So because I call him Gérard, then people assume that I am Isabelle, but I could be Laurence. Or anyone.
Filmmaker: What was important for you to answer for yourself about the movie, if anything? In terms of the material, was there some decision about your relationship to your son or your past that you had to make?
Huppert: No, I think what I liked about the film is that you have two different ethical attitudes to life. She is a believer, and he is skeptical at the beginning. And the strength of their relationship operates in such a way that in the end, he became the believer and she became the skeptic. So there is a transmission of their own belief because he doesn’t believe at the beginning. She believes, and she urges him to believe, and she takes him on this eight-day ceremony. But at the end, he sees and she doesn’t see. I like that. It’s almost like he became her and she becomes him, you know? And so many things are being said about what a couple is, how you can transmit your own beliefs or non-beliefs. It makes her empty of something in the end, whereas he learns something, because he thinks that it’s sort of the point [of the journey]. I think it’s quite true that the mother is the believer at the beginning, I think, maybe, because the death of a child might be unaccepted even more. She’s more ready to have this acceptance to see the boy. In a way, she’s more crazy at the beginning, because you have to be crazy to think that [such a thing] is possible. And at the end… we remain on this image, which I think is beautiful — it’s almost as if it’s an image of life and death at the same time, almost as if you were in the different dimension, or in paradise.
Filmmaker: Just speaking more broadly about your work in general right now, I’m very excited to see Mia Hansen-Løve’s film. And I know Joachim Trier’s film, Louder than Bombs, is opening here soon. What’s guiding you today in terms of the roles that you’re selecting for yourself?
Huppert: Nothing different than before, then from the very beginning. I find great directors to work with, and I think by nature, I’m very curious. So I’m never afraid of something I don’t know, by definition. I’m not afraid to take [a part] if I trust the director of if I have the intuition that there’s going to be something very individual, very personal in the film. I’m quite ready for different adventures.
Filmmaker: What makes you trust the director?
Huppert: It’s pure intuition. I have good intuition most of the time, but sometimes, it’s in the script. But I did a movie with Hong Sang-soo, the great Korean director, and there was no script. I like also this kind of opportunity, because I think what you have to enjoy is the extraordinary versatility of cinema, the idea that cinema can be eight months shooting on Heaven’s Gate by Michael Cimino, and nine days shooting in Korea with Hong Sang-soo. And it’s still cinema, and cinema is this continent, or, let’s say, this shape that you can really shape. You can extend it, and you can reduce. It’s endless and the potential is just immense. That’s what I like about cinema.
Filmmaker: What’s the beginning of your relationship with any director like? Is everyone different? Are you always adapting to a different way of working from a director or do you like to bring a certain way of working?
Huppert: No, I think I’m very easy. I mean, if the director wants to rehearse, okay, it’s fine for me. For instance, Joaquim Trier, you know, works in the opposite way to [just] giving you a clue, you know? Much more questioning and rehearsing. Also, because when we were doing Louder Than Bombs, he was coming from Norway, and I was coming from France, and you had to put some very different people together. So in these occasions, I can imagine that it’s more necessary to — or not — but a director can think that it’s necessary to put these people together [in rehearsal]. Also, it’s quite American. In France, we never rehearse. It never, never happens. In six films with Claude Chabrol, we never [rehearsed]. And even with Michael Haneke, the idea of rehearsing, it’s a different planet for him, you know?
Filmmaker: The French film industry right now, what’s your take on it?
Huppert: Well, I guess it’s like everywhere, I think what you say about films now, you could say the same some years ago. To make ambitious films, their success is never predictable, so it’s always very difficult to convince people to [finance them]. Let’s say it’s getting more and more difficult. But recently last week, the movie that won the Cesar, our French Oscar, was Fatima. And it’s a very modest, small film, very critically acclaimed, and it got three awards, including Best Film. That’s very encouraging. But, I’ll take this as an example, I did a movie with Werner Schroeter, Malina, years ago, in 1990. He was this great baroque, fantastic, poetic director. If we wanted to do Malina now in the same conditions with as much money — because it was quite a rich production — you couldn’t do it. It was a coproduction, mainly German money, but still, you couldn’t do the same. So let’s say a certain categories of films like [Malina], you couldn’t do them the same way now. You still can do them, but not in the same comfort.