The opening film of the 2011 Critics' Week, War is Declared (La guerre est déclarée) is the second feature from French writer-director-actress Valérie Donzelli, and is both a deeply personal family affair and a consistently inventive artistic triumph. Which meant that I was very excited to speak to she and her co-star, co-writer and real-life partner Jérémie Elkaïm in Cannes last Saturday.
War is Declared is the tale of Romeo and Juliette (seriously. And it's cute, rather than gittish), a pair who like the real-life couple that play them, Jérémie Elkaïm and Valérie Donzelli, appear to have if not it all, then certainly more than most. They are young, they are gorgeous, they are free-spirited, and cooler than a ice cube dropped down the front of your shorts. They also have a son, Adam, who if perhaps arrived in their lives earlier than planned, is still a source of pride for the lovers and their families (the model of middle-class respectability on her side, bohemian lesbians on his).
But tragedy strikes the couple, when Adam's developmental difficulties are diagnosed as a potentially lethal brain tumour. Having never before been faced with the darkness of life, having always before breezed through with a charming, perhaps slightly narcissistic ease, Romeo and Juliette are forced to fight for the first time in their existence, to put someone else's needs far beyond their own. So, sure enough, they open hostilities against a disease which, medical probability dictates, will most likely claim the life of their boy.
The movie is charged with emotion, naturally enough given the subject matter, but even more so when one learns that the story is based on the experiences of Donzelli and Elkaïm when their eldest child became very sick. But, maybe surprisingly given the heavy substance of the tale, War is Declared is also a movie bursting with wit and vigour.
Both leads are hugely charismatic, and their performances defy you not to become embroiled in their personal struggle. Meanwhile, the film also delivers a string of powerfully playful sequences, such as Juliette's mental anguish at the moment she is told of Adam's illness being conveyed via a jerking, thrusting sprint through hospital corridors, to a soundtrack of ear-shredding electro. Or when Romeo and Juliette, separated by geography and at respective low ebbs, break into a tender duet, the magic of cinema bridging the distance between them, at least momentarily.
War is Declared received what has, thus far, proven the most electrifying response for any film I have caught at this year's Cannes. As soon as the end credits began to roll, the audience reacted with an instant standing ovation, and the scene soon turned from one of stately triumph to homespun charm, as Donzelli and Elkaïm, rising to receive the acclaim, began to dance hand-in-hand to the closing music, the handclaps of the crowd intuitively falling into time with the beat. It was a touching moment, and if I'm not mistaken Donzelli was wiping away tears of joy by the end of it all.
Spin on a couple of days from that foxtrot up the magic staircase of happiness and it was back down to earth for Donzelli and Elkaïm, as they hit the international press trail and found themselves faced by myself and a coterie of fellow film hacks on the roof terrace of the beach-front Marriott Hotel.
Both are friendly, with the sharply-suited Jérémie coming across as confident and gregarious, while Valérie is perhaps a little cooler and quieter, in her leather jacket and shades. And although my French is unutterably dreadful and their English is limited (“I am shit at English,” Jérémie told me with a smile), with the help of a genial translator perched at my elbow, we just about managed to successfully hurdle any communication barriers. Here's what was said...
Question: You say in the press notes that 'we're a spoiled generation, not prepared for war'. So who's 'we'?
Valérie Donzelli: It's us, people my age, in our thirties.
Jérémie Elkaïm: In my opinion, we're living in a dictatorship of happiness, a tyranny of cool. Everyone's always trying to push away anything that could be sad, and we're [he and Valérie] a part of it. It seems like when you're lacking ideals the whole goal is to be happy, and screw the planet, screw everything. It's a feeling that Valérie and I have together – a generation that's like mollycoddled and not prepared for war.
Q: But what does that mean – you're “prepared for war”? How can you be prepared for war?
JE: I don't know if you can be prepared, but the more that you're in a carefree attitude the more it cuts your legs off. Whereas people who are [prepared for war, in the established context], they've got an energy that's almost a child-like, instinctive energy.
Q: This is a personal story, but what if it had been a tragic ending [in real life]? Would you have still done the film?
VD: Yes, but I think it would have been a much different film.
JE: This film was only possible because our child was cured, otherwise it would have been completely different. We really wanted to share the triumph of it with other people.
VD: We don't have any idea what it's actually like to lose a child. I love The Son's Room by Nanni Moretti [a Palme d'Or winner back in 2001], and when we saw it our child was sick at the time. It was very upsetting. When you're a parent, there's nothing worse than losing a child. It's a natural thing that parents are supposed to die before the children.
Q: Can cinema be cathartic if that does happen?
VD: I don't think so. You live with what happens. Whatever you do, things stack up, and film can't solve the problems. The thing about making a movie is the desire to leave a trace and make sure the story doesn't die.
Q: In what ways did your son's illness change you?
VD: We have a different relationship with time now. When you're in this situation, time stands still. You can't project the future, you just have to be in the now. Just in terms of our relationship to life, it makes you feel more humble, to realise that you could go at any time.
JE: I think that anyone who's gone through a trial like this experiences an evolution. In my case, I felt really strange after he was cured. You're just sort of lost for a while, floating around, and you have to figure out how to come back down to earth.
Q: You say the film is all about sharing the good side of your story, but what did that really mean in terms of choices of mise en scène?
JE: There were a lot of things that worried us about the subject matter. We were worried about ending up with a lot of pathos. We needed to figure out what angle to approach it from. Just because you've gone through something intense, and it's autobiographical, doesn't automatically mean it's going to be a good film, so we wanted to focus on the love story aspect. What I think is good about Valérie's work is that she manages to go from one tone to another quite naturally. It's very naturalistic and poetic, and that's what I think is really characteristic about Valérie's work.
VD: When I was working on the screenplay, I can visualise what I want the film to be. I have a sensation of what it could be, but you can never really be sure in advance what kind of dimension it's going to take on from an emotional point of view. I kind of expected it to be lighter than it turned out to be, and my idea was to make something that was sort of a comedy-action film. What the actors bring to it, and the music, lights, editing, makes the film born again in its final form, and it's always somewhat beyond your grasp. You try to master everything, but the film is always stronger than you.
Q: You mention the music, and it's such an amazing soundtrack. Did you have the music in mind when you were writing the script, or did it come later?
JE: Something very impressive about the way Valérie works is that the purely dramatical solutions for the screenplay could come from anywhere. It could be an accessory, it could be a dress, a set design, an event, or the music. Music is an element that really inspires Valérie. She just abandons herself to music. She comes in with the keyboard and we compose. Often it's quite a joyful experience.
Q: And this desire to experiment with different forms, is this a comment that you think French cinema is a bit formulaic at the moment?
VD: I can't really say in terms of other films, but I just try to be coherent in terms of my film.
JE: We're not trying to oppose ourselves to any other French cinema in any way, do something against what is being done. We're just not always satisfied with the results that we see, including as actors [perhaps worth noting at this stage that Valérie appears in two more films at Cannes 2011 in a purely acting capacity. She is in Bachelor Days are Over, which is in Critics' Week, and En Ville, in Directors' Fortnight].
Q: Have you always wanted to make films?
VD: No, not at all. No, quite late actually. Meeting Jérémie 15 years ago – he's the one who initiated me to cinema and I liked it, but I wasn't particularly dreaming of becoming an actress or a director. I had studied architecture, and then I started realising that I'd like to be an actress.
Q: What about the reception of the movie on Thursday night? Because it seemed like a really magical response from the audience. How did that make you feel, getting such a long standing ovation from the crowd?
VD: It was very intense, very positive, very emotional – magical.
JE: We're never opposed to such pleasure!
Q: What about the narration?
VD: I really love the idea of a narrator telling the story. It's very practical, because you can solve a lot of the script problems!
JE: No, no, no, that's not it. It's one of the ways you can put a little bit of distance so you're not taking the audience hostage. Valérie did something very intuitive – she carries her subconscious on her shoulder – and she was writing the sentences for the last voice-over: “They remained solid. Destroyed for sure, but solid.” When I read that, I thought 'That doesn't sound like good French. You can't be destroyed and solid'. You're either one or the other. It's like saying “He was small but also very tall.” But at the same time, because it's not possible, it ends up being poetic. And then it's telling something else, something different, something really beautiful and true, which is what the film is telling.
Q: Are you worried now as parents that your son will vote extreme right? [Laughter, because in War is Declared, Romeo and Juliette jokingly imagine their nightmare scenarios for their son aside from his illness.]
VD: Your worries just go elsewhere basically. The fact that we had a child who, very early in life, was between life and death – we really became worried. And even though he's cured now, we always feel worried about him. We have a second child and we just don't worry in the same way. It's strange.
JE: While we were in the heart of the fight against the illness, I used to say “I can't wait until my son has his teenage crisis. It's gonna be so great when he says 'Fuck off!' And when that day comes, I know the fight will have been won.”
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