Valerie Donzelli Declaration of War Interview

Valerie Donzelli Declaration of War Interview

Valerie Donzelli Declaration of War Interview

Cast: Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim
Director: Valerie Donzelli
Genre: Drama, Romance
Rated: M
Running Time: 100 minutes

Synopsis: An exuberant young Parisian couple fall instantly and deeply in love, but are pulled from their carefree existence by a twist of fate. Based on real-life events experienced by filmmaker Valerie Donzelli and co-star/writer Jeremie Elkaim.

Release Date: May 31st, 2012

Interview with Valerie Donzelli

Question: The theme of Declaration Of War is tragic but the film is neither a tragedy nor a comedy. You'd be tempted to call it a living film.

Valerie Donzelli: I'd find it hard to describe it myself. I don't think it's a drama, or a tragedy, nor a melodrama. With hindsight, Jérémie Elkaïm and I tend to see it as a physical film, intense and alive...

At first I wanted to make an action film, a western, a war film, hence the title. I liked the idea of opening a door and watching what happens behind it: the encounter with a young couple living a real adventure, rather than a cardboard cut-out adventure. It's as if Romeo and Juliette had met in order to go through this great ordeal together.

Question: The film is run through with the notion of fate: fate that is accomplished rather than submitted to.

Valerie Donzelli: For me life is a succession of trials to overcome, difficult or not, fortunate or unfortunate. You climb the mountain, step by step. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

Adam is the result of Romeo and Juliette's union - why is he afflicted by this disease? When Romeo asks Juliette this question, she replies: "Because we can overcome this." The ordeal takes an almost mystical turn; it's no longer a question of bad luck or injustice.

Question: Declaration Of War is the story of a sick child but above all, it's the story of a couple faced with the ordeal of disease that you film.

Valerie Donzelli: What interested me was telling a love story experienced through this particular ordeal. Romeo and Juliette are young, carefree lovers, not at all prepared for war - I think we are a generation of spoiled children, none of us are prepared for war - who are going to be surprised by their ability to fight and become heroes in spite of themselves. Because waging this war is a form of heroism. Faced with this trial, they become a couple; they become responsible adults.

I also wanted to talk about the fact that our own children overtake us. Adam has a brain tumour, something his parents have not experienced. Powerless in the face of this, they can only accompany him. Juliette and Romeo's parents are powerless as well in the face of what their children are going through, it's a system they're caught up in, a Russian doll mechanism. Our children are not extensions of ourselves, but people in their own right, with experiences of their own. Adam's experience starts very early - he's eighteen months old when his sickness is diagnosed.

Question: The test of illness will both strengthen and destroy the bond that unites them. As the narrator says at the end of the film: "They were destroyed but solid."

Valerie Donzelli: The love relation is by nature carefree and rests on the conviction that nothing can destroy it, but Romeo and Juliette are caught in a routine, the hospital makes them withdraw into themselves. Something must die so their child can survive - their relationship. At the same time, this ordeal helps them build and strengthen their bond. They complete each other perfectly: they are truly man and woman, yin and yang. I wanted to show a very contemporary couple. I loved the fact that it's he who does the housework and looks after Adam while she works. They are still trying to find what they want from life, they have ideals but have to work to pay the rent. I wanted to be connected to my generation, to talk about what I know, what I experience in life. The film is autobiographical insofar as Jérémie and I have had a child who fell gravely ill. The facts are very close to what we went through, but the film isn't our story.

Question: How do you go from the intimate, visceral pain caused by tragic events to a film everybody can identify with?

Valerie Donzelli: To me, that's specific to cinema: you start from contemplating your own navel then zoom out to tell a universal story: our relationship with how we bring up our children, the fact of being confronted as parents with the worst that can happen - your child suspended between life and death. To talk about the connection to life itself! Jérémie has a beautiful way of describing the fact that we've managed to make a film about our personal story: "We got rid of the bad to keep only the good".

The Queen Of Hearts is a film about a break-up; I made it when I felt depressed. Declaration Of War used the same process: sad events in my life were used to produce something positive. The film gestated inside me for a long time until I knew it was the right moment to do it.

To work at making a film allows you a distance from your experience. Cinema reproduces reality; it's a game. Everything is made-up; nothing is real but there's a desire for reality, for truth.

Question: Your characters never feel sorry for themselves.

Valerie Donzelli: They don't have time, they're too busy. Romeo and Juliette is a two-headed war machine! The mundane issues of life no longer exist in the face of this great calamity; they have only one enemy to fight, one targeted enemy - which is often easier than ten thousand unknown small ones. They know their target and they draw strength from that. All the more so since cancer is a peculiar disease, a living disease, an alien we manufacture ourselves in a way, because it's a cell inside us that goes awry. We don't know why. Why does it appear in one person and not another? Nobody is safe. Moreover, when Romeo and Juliette understand their child is cured, Doctor Sainte-Rose corrects them by saying: "Yes, that means he's just as likely as anyone else to develop cancer."

All the characters give their best faced with this terrible ordeal, not just Romeo and Juliette. Juliette's mother is portrayed as poisonous but she also reveals herself ever more capable of greatness. I wanted to make a film filled with hope and ideals, that's why it isn't in any way a melodrama.

Question: In hospital they read a newspaper with a headline about "the power of laughter". Knowing your style of cinema, would it be safe to say it isn't a coincidence?

Valerie Donzelli: Yes and no! The day we shot this scene I went to the kiosk in the hospital and looked for the headlines that appealed to me. I didn't pick one at random but it just so happened that this particular headline was on the front of Aujourd'hui en France that day.

Question: Romeo, Juliette, Adam names with a universal and mythical resonance...

Valerie Donzelli: We didn't know what to call the lovers at first. I wanted them to be identified as a couple straightaway. We thought about Paul and Virginie... "Why not Romeo and Juliette?" Jérémie suggested. "OK, but it has to be played that way." So they meet at a party, they fall in love at first sight; they can't believe their names are Romeo and Juliette, and wonder about their tragic destiny together.

As far as Adam is concerned, it's a different story. I wanted a universal name. Adam is the original man; there is something magical about that. And it's a gentle name; we don't tire of hearing it. As it's spoken often throughout the film, that was important

Question: The Queen Of Hearts was a very "artisanal" film; were you worried about working with an established producer?

Valerie Donzelli: No, with Edouard Weil, it was a real meeting of minds. I think that cinema is something artisanal in a way, and Ddouard worked with me along those lines. He's a remarkable man; he accompanied me for the entire time it took for the film to be made with only one watchword : "I trust you."

Only four people worked on The Queen Of Hearts. This meant many constraints but great freedom as well; I didn't want to fall into the world of big budget filmmaking where you're dependent on others.

When I met Edouard Weil and told him about my project, he asked me: "When do you want to shoot?" "October." "Ok, let's do it, the same way you did your previous film. Only difference, this time, you don't make the sandwiches!"

We worked comfortably, but it wasn't a big budget, there was a consistency between the production and the spirit of the film. I liked the fact that the money spent was spent only on the film. What's vital is to gather a good team, to be surrounded with good people. Cinema is a collective art; you can't make films on your own.

Question: How did you choose your crew?

Valerie Donzelli: From people I knew. For the image and the sound, it's the same team as on The Queen Of Hearts. As DP, Sébastien Buchamn and André Rigaut for sound. The crew was stripped back to a minimum, and as a result, everyone wore more than one hat. I'm not interested in someone who just turns up on the shoot, but in someone who really works for the film. As a result they all got involved early on in the process. I don't work in a traditional way, I allow for spontaneity from each member, from the preparation stage onwards.

Question: Even if the film doesn't give Adam's disease centre stage, the hospital plays a big part.

Valerie Donzelli: I wanted to make a film strongly rooted in the real, in the reality of hospital life, and that meant shooting in a real hospital as opposed to a studio, and using people who were already there rather than extras. We had to contact the hospitals a long time ahead, so we could explain our project without scaring them, in order to convince them to give their consent.

I don't know what we would have done if they had refused. Each time we got a yes, Marie, the first AD, would say: "it's like getting a yes from the CnC!" And it's true. It was even more important for me!

Question: How did you convince the hospital staff to support your project?

Valerie Donzelli: First of all they remembered us very well. We spent a lot of time there, and our son was cured, so they remembered us even more... it was easy to contact them, I gave them the screenplay, explained the project...

Generally speaking, no sets were touched except the apartment where work is being done and Romeo and Juliette's apartment at the beginning. We took places as they were. I love the idea of "making do" with real material.

Question: How do you go about shooting in a busy hospital?

Valerie Donzelli: We were very well prepared. Sébastien and I searched for the most naturally well-lit spots in the gustave Roussy institute. We planned exactly where we were going to shoot - we had some surprises, but not too many. At Necker, we'd plan our schedule a day at a time, according to the emergencies. The idea was to be discreet, that's why we chose to film with a stills camera.

Question: A stills camera?

Valerie Donzelli: Yes, we shot the whole film with a Canon in natural light. At Locarno, where The Queen Of Hearts was selected, i was a bit bored at a party and noticed a photographer taking pictures. I asked him about his camera, and he said: "it's amazing; you can even film in HD!" A stills camera you can film with, it's fantastic, because no one suspects you are filming... We spent the evening doing tests with his camera and i told myself: "I'm going to shoot Declaration Of War with this camera."

The direction was planned with obtaining the most from this camera in mind. For example, focusing was difficult to achieve because I had first envisaged a hand-held camera, so we had to cut a lot more and shoot with the help of a tripod. The only shots filmed in 35mm are the ones at the end, in slow motion. I wanted a really beautiful slow motion, which is hard to achieve with the stills camera.

Question: Your desire to be rooted in the real is also apparent in the sound

Valerie Donzelli: Yes, it is all real sound and we were very careful during the edit to not clean it up too much, to preserve the film's minimalism, its rawness, and its realism. And apart from some musical intervals in stereo, everything is in mono so that we stay focused on the image, so that we "keep our head in the film"

Question: Voice-over, irising, slow motion, music... you use everything available without ever losing either the tone of the film or the audience.

Valerie Donzelli: I'm working on my new screenplay with Gilles Marchand at the moment, and he told me that due to the way I work, screenplay problems get fixed from all sides: by an actor, some music, a costume... everything is forming at the same time, all the time. That's why I like to give birth to the film quickly it quickly becomes exhausting!

Everybody knows the "Radioscopie" title music, composed by George Delerue for Jacques Chancel's radio show. I heard it by chance on the radio and thought it was exactly what I needed for the opening of the film. I was also very inspired by some of Vivaldi's compositions. Jérémie is a music-lover and he knows what I like, he introduces me to a lot of different music. They're like light bulbs going on; they allow me to see the next scenes. Jérémie is more than a co-writer and an actor for me, he's there for each step of the process, there's a constant dialogue between us.

Question: The voice-over is spoken by different narrators....

Valerie Donzelli: Yes, a man and two women. The man is Philippe Barrassat, who narrated The Queen Of Hearts. The first female narrator is Pauline Gaillard, my editor. There was one missing voice-over, she recorded that temporarily in the editing room and when I heard it I thought it would be great to have several narrators, as if they were taking over from each other. The third voice is Valentine Catzéflis, who had a small part in the film that ended up on the cutting room floor. She has a magnificent voice. I love voice-over: it's a way of telling the story that allows great freedom during editing.

Question: And when Romeo and Juliette start singing?

Valerie Donzelli: At that moment, the strength of this couple is to tell each other how much they love each other.

Question: You seem never to question if there is too much music, too much emotion, if "this is done" or not...

Valerie Donzelli: No, I follow my intuition. Cinema is like a game we play in order to make something. It's difficult, it creates many anxieties and questions, but it's not life threatening. Filmmaking is joyful, you have to allow yourself to follow what you want. Perhaps it's because I'm an actor first that I feel this sense of playfulness so strongly.

Question: Is that where the magic apparitions stem from?

Valerie Donzelli: Yes, I'm all for anything goes, you clap your hands and a Christmas tree appears! I'd love to use a magic wand in a film one day. "Cinema is more cheerful than life," as someone said...

Question: This tonal freedom, this joy, helps to erase the line between drama and comedy the character of the paediatrician, who is almost comic, despite being the bearer of bad news...

Valerie Donzelli: This character is a blend of different things. First, there's the actress, Béatrice de Staël, my absolute idol, who had a part in The Queen Of Hearts. I love directing her, she's a fabulous comedienne. I had some glasses made for her to make her eyes look bigger; I thought it would be funny to give her owl's eyes. Sometimes she wore them on the tip of her nose because she couldn't see a thing and it made her look like an intellectual, the post '68 paediatrician type, like Dolto. (Françoise Dolto, French pioneer of child psychoanalysis). And when I saw the toy telephone on the paediatrician's messy desk, I had the idea of asking Béatrice to pick it up instead of the real one when she has to call her colleague. I knew she'd do it very well. These ideas always balance on a razors' edge, they work because everybody goes with it, shares the same vision, the same feelings, and the same trust. It's a bit magical. When you see the finished film, we kept only what worked.

Question: Another dramatic moment when burlesque bursts in: the scene where Romeo and Juliette start imagining the worse that could happen to their child.

Valerie Donzelli: At first the scene was shorter and more realistic, about real fears, but Jérémie thought it would be good to push it further. As a result, their fears become absurd.

Question: How do you manage to find the right balance of such disparate moods and tones?

Valerie Donzelli: The editing was very complicated; we were faced with material that was a little difficult to tame. It was a matter of instinct and subtle balance, a bit like lace. A scene or a shot can capsize very quickly. The film was strong but its equilibrium was fragile, it was vital not to damage it. Pauline gaillard is a very intelligent, very sensitive editor, with whom i share a deep bond. We love working together.

Question: The film rests on the suspense of day-to-day situations, but you make no recourse to suspense as regards the outcome. Because the story is told in flashback we know that Adam is going to come out of his illness alive.

Valerie Donzelli: To use Adam's recovery as objet of suspense would be to take the audience hostage. From the onset I wanted the audience to know he would make it at the end, so we can wonder about what is going to happen before we get there. Once again, this is the story of the couple above all.

Question: How did you find directing a child?

Valerie Donzelli: At first I thought I'd use the son of friends but I realised it would be too complicated. Not everyone is ready to entrust their child to someone else's care and make them available for more than twenty days of shooting. It was better to do it more professionally. So we held a casting. When I met César, who plays Adam, it was obvious that he was the right one. His parents were very helpful; they trusted us entirely. They didn't start off by wanting their child to act; but when César was born his mother took a lot of pictures of him and, when she was bored, created a blog where she posted them. César's father wanted to take them down later but they couldn't work out how, so the photos stayed up. Numerous casting and advertising agents contacted them but they always refused, until Karen Hottois, my casting director, called them and told them the story of Declaration Of War

Question: What made you decide to play your own story with Jérémie Elkaïm?

Valerie Donzelli: It was easy to act in The Queen Of Hearts because Adèle is a purely comic character. At first I had no desire to play Juliette, because she was very close to me, but mostly because it was a very emotional part. I was afraid of acting badly, shamelessly. On the other hand I had no doubt about Jérémie because even if he was also very close to his character, I was going to direct him and I just love his acting. But who could play opposite him? It was complicated. At one point I thought: "not him either" but because I couldn't find others to play this couple I finally thought: "it's simple, I'll play Juliette myself."

Question: Replaying these events, going back to these places: weren't you afraid of reawakening the pain?

Valerie Donzelli: On the contrary, it was very healing to go back to the scenes, but accompanied, and working.

Question: Nonetheless, this doesn't feel like a film made to exorcise the pain...

Valerie Donzelli: That's true, I certainly didn't make this film to exorcise whatever. I just wanted to make a film. I don't think cinema exorcises anything.

Question: What about the rest of the casting?

Valerie Donzelli: The hospital staff is a mixture of actors and real health care workers, like Doctor Kalifa. I had asked Doctor Sainte-Rose to play himself but he told me he was a very poor actor. He let me borrow his coat, his office and his secretary though! Finding the actor to play him was difficult: the real-life Sainte-Rose is so exceptionally charismatic. Finally I decided that I shouldn't stick with reality and find someone less extravagant but whose humanity would shine through. Jérémie had told me about Frédéric Pierrot and I ran into him in Dr Zucharelli's waiting room, at an occupational medicine appointment. i thought he had a beautiful voice. I wanted good actors for all these supporting roles, but not too well know. For Fitoussi, i thought of Anne Le Ny immediately because I am very fond of her acting.

Question: We're often reminded of Truffaut in your film - voice-over, iris, the desire to film contemporary youth, Vivaldi - but not for a moment do we think it's a reference. In that sense you really do belong to the spirit of the New Wave and Truffaut who wanted to make personal films who resembled their author.

Valerie Donzelli: It's true that I work in a very personal way. no doubt I do things that Truffaut and other directors I like have experimented already, that's the way things are, we're unconsciously nourished by everything we see and love, but it's not a question of reference, just what's necessary for the film.

Interview by Claire Vassé