When Declaration of War opened the Cannes Critics' Week last year the film announced a burgeoning talent to the world: French actress and filmmaker Valérie Donzelli.
When you make a film, it’s fun like a game and you make all the
decisions, whereas in life you are much more a prisoner to the
“It was an extremely happy, joyful experience for us to have the film in Cannes,” says Donzelli, speaking from Paris just after I'd seen Leos Carax's Holy Motors at this year's Cannes Festival. “Kylie Minogue is in it?” she asked of the idiosyncratic film that was creating a strong positive reaction among the French.
“For us, with The Declaration of War, it was great to have a film which carried such great sentiment and emotions at the festival.”
Donzelli was already an established actor when she directed her first feature, 2009's The Queen of Hearts, though it barely registered, even in France. She had written the film with her ex, Jérémie Elkaïm, her son's father from whom she was already separated. They also co-starred in the micro-budgeted film.
She then re-teamed with Elkaïm for Declaration of War, which deals with the couple coping with their infant son's real-life diagnosis with brain cancer. The film, shot for around $1.7 million using a Canon 5D camera and a tiny eight-person crew, went on to attract nearly one million admissions at the French box office, making it the most successful low-budget film there in a decade.
Donzelli and her team have been viewed as part of a new generation of French filmmakers who favour a more realistic approach. It's perhaps significant that Declaration of War was the French nomination for the foreign-language Oscar this year, over the more conventional Of Gods and Men.
“I was stunned because it was the first time France had presented a low budget film like this, and probably it's the first time the French nominee was directed by a woman.”
Focusing on a star-crossed couple named Roméo and Juliette as they huddle together on a hospital bed as their 18-month-old son Adam awaits surgery, the film traces back to their meeting as footloose and fancy-free Parisians and the eventual battle to keep their son alive. In actual fact, Donzelli and Elkaïm's son Gabriel had been diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2003 and after five years of intense treatment, he was declared cancer-free. The boy survived in the end, but Elkaïm's and Donzelli's relationship did not.
As Donzelli explains, the story in the film is uplifting and is not about the anguish of possible death since they made it as a kind of thriller. Indeed the film's title isn't passive.
“When one declares war, it's something where you're overcome by the speed of it; it's about the possibility of victory. We really wanted to make a film about being parents and to tell it as an adventure.”
The film is very different from their own personal reality, she says. “When you make a film, it's fun like a game and you make all the decisions, whereas in life you are much more a prisoner to the situation. The film wasn't traumatising or agonising to make because the experience is in the past.”
Still was it necessary to make the film with her ex? “Yes it was. We're very close and Jérémie knows exactly what I wanted. These things were part of our personal life so I can't imagine anybody else in that role. In the beginning, I didn't want to play in the film because I was afraid it would be too complicated. Finally, I didn't want to put another actress in my place and I had Jérémie there to help me too. He wasn't in the scenes in Marseilles so he could direct me and, in fact, that was reassuring.”
Probably most unlikely of all is that Gabriel plays himself at age eight in the film. “He has parents who make films and he likes films,” says his mother. “But it's important to know the difference between the reality and the film and that was why we didn't show him the film right away.”
Has her background as an architect influenced her filmmaking? “Architecture is to lead an idea to its natural end and to make it concrete and the cinema is the same in that way. But I left architecture because the heaviness of the process was too much. I didn't know that much about the rules of filmmaking and that was liberating. There was a freedom that I couldn't find in architecture.”
She describes the method they have developed as “a Swiss army knife way of working” where the same person serves many functions. “We made The Queen of Hearts that way and extended that method to Declaration of War, even if it was more ambitious and we had more money.”
Her next film, which she is currently shooting, is Hand in Hand. “It's a romantic comedy that will come out in December in France with Jérémie and Valérie Lemercier and I have a supporting role as Jérémie's sister. But it's not such a complete change as it's a melancholy film. I can't say what it will be yet because it's not done yet. But it's a film that deals with bereavement. As with my previous films, Jérémie and I wrote it together and Gilles Marchand wrote it with us.”