The French actress-turned-director Valerie Donzelli is every bit as lively on the phone as she is on screen. Over the background chatter of a Paris restaurant, and through the crackle of our transatlantic connection, Ms. Donzelli still exudes charm, spontaneity, and when the moment requires it, sensitive consideration, much like her affecting new film, Declaration of War. Drawing on her and co-star Jérémie Elkaïm’s real-life experience raising a son with a rare form of brain cancer, Declaration never surrenders to self-pity. Instead, it is a story of endurance, community, and overcoming. But also, and most surprising given its somber subject, it’s an effusive portrait of lives lived to the fullest.
For most of Valerie’s generation, that would ordinarily mean partying, dancing, and otherwise shirking adulthood. Before they become parents, the film’s central couple—lent the fairytale names Romeo (Elkaïm) and Juliette (Donzelli)—first meet trading pills at a post-punk club in Paris. But when they give birth to Adam (another nod to archetype) and discover their son has a malignant brain tumor, what might have been a typical story of leaving youth behind becomes much more: a profound statement about a generation’s outlook and its relation to tragedy. Today, Valerie has a lot to be happy about. After several years, Valerie and Jérémie’s son was finally cured. And Declaration received a ten minute standing ovation on opening night of the Cannes Film Festical. As we talk on the phone, Valerie is never far from a joyous laugh.
Romeo and Juliette are fashionable young people, they like going out, dressing well. But when their life capsizes it’s as if they discover this whole new area of existence they weren’t prepared for. What were you trying to ‘declare’ with the film?
For me, it’s a reflection of a generation that isn’t ready to be adult. We love being young and crazy, living life at full speed. We have kids to try to prolong that love and that energy, and then, sometimes, things go wrong. But we struggle forward at all costs. The film is, above all, universal. It shows that even if we’re not prepared for the battle, we can overcome it.
What was it like to write, direct and act in a film that was so close to a true personal experience?
It’s clear that the narrative of the film takes as its origin a true story, one belonging to Jérémie Elkaïm and myself. This story was so powerful for me that I felt compelled to make a film about it. But I also wanted to make a universal story, give it a new dimension—of a mad love that brings the couple together. Hence their names, Romeo and Juliette: Shakespeare’s famous lovers. This choice was crucial and allowed us to put a distance between the film and us. The writing, as well as the shoot, was an act of joy and energy where we searched for just the right tone to imbue this story with life.
Declaration received a standing ovation at Cannes this past year. How did it feel to bring such an intimate, honest, almost confessional film to a public that adored it?
I don’t have the feeling that I divulged my intimate life with the public as the film was born from a true love of cinema. From the moment when my son was cured and I decided to make this film, I felt I was ready for the entire story to be shared. Declaration of War is very different from my earlier film, The Queen of Hearts (“La reine des pommes”) but as with that film, I was inspired by my own life and feelings. As far as the warm reception that greeted the film, I am always very moved by such positive reactions the film inspires.
The music is striking in the film. In one scene your character runs down the halls of a hospital and we hear an abrasive electro tune we’d most associate with a club. But for her, it reflects the chaos she is feeling at that moment. I thought that was amazing. How did you choose the songs for the soundtrack? Music plays such a strong role in the characters’ own lives as well as in the film.
For me, music is the pure expression of feelings. It accompanies the emotions of the characters but also serves to establish a distance from a situation that could be very heavy. Music was at the heart of our creative process even as we were writing the script. Certain scenes were directly inspired from particular songs. So the choice comes from a combination of factors: it could be music that I personally love or it could come just as well from outside suggestions.
Declaration shares some of the same energy and concerns as other recent French films about privileged twenty-somethings confronting more serious life events. I’m thinking of Poliss, which also premiered at Cannes, or Cedric Klapisch’s new film, Paris. How do you see this new generation of French directors?
I’m not sure we can talk about a generation of filmmakers, it’s still too early to tell. What is certain is that we’re part of a larger generation of kids who were spoiled silly, not at all prepared for the world, for war, and yet who will be surprised by their capacity for struggle, and can still become heroes despite all of this. But it’s true that the social origin of our characters come from a reality we’re familiar with.
Has your relationship with your co-star and ex-husband Jérémie changed after the film?
With Jérémie we have a truly collaborative working relationship. The film just reinforced that. We’re happy to be able to live these moments together.
What are you working on now? I hear you are shooting a new film.
So many projects! Right now I’m in the middle of my next movie. It will be a dance film with Valérie Lemercier as the Director of the Paris Opera and Jérémie Elkaïm as a glass-dealer from Provence.