Love in ‘War’
On the list of parents’ worst nightmares it has to rate pretty high when your child is diagnosed with a brain tumor. That’s the news Valerie Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim received a few years back -- don’t fret, this isn’t that kind of story; their son is now considered 100% recovered. But the couple did mine their experiences for an unexpectedly upbeat -- and fictionalized -- exploration of love and romance and the ups and downs of the boy’s treatment in the film “Declaration of War,” France’s submission for the foreign-language film Oscar.
Following its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the film, directed by Donzelli and co-written by and starring the two of them, became a box office hit after its release in France, an unusual accomplishment for a film made with minimal budget, a small crew and shot mostly on the Canon 5D camera that has become popular with American independent filmmakers.
Donzelli and Elkaim are working actors in France, and beyond “Declaration” each appeared in numerous other films at Cannes this year. For them, “Declaration” is not intended as a wrenching slice of their own emotional torment or even particularly as an act of catharsis. Noting that they never wanted to “hold the audience hostage” with their personal story, Elkaim explained that, rather, they saw their experience as a jumping-off point to explore other ideas.
“Films are always personal; there are just different degrees to which it is visible,” said Elkaim. “In ‘Declaration of War,’ you have the illusion that it’s super personal because you know the back story and all that, but there’s a healthy layer of fiction that’s protecting us, that separates the film from the facts of our story. I think that even when Sam Raimi makes ‘Spider-Man 2,’ all filmmakers put a lot of themselves into their films. All films are personal films.”
The pair were sitting together on a balcony of a hotel in Beverly Hills one decidedly gray afternoon recently, at a table scattered with ashtrays, cigarettes, coffee cups, water glasses, soda bottles and a comically oversized lighter. There is perhaps nothing more languidly glamorous than a French writer-director-actress wearing sunglasses to fight off jet lag and a slight case of nausea.
Donzelli’s previous film as writer-director-star, the 2009 romantic comedy “The Queen of Hearts,” was made after their son had gone through the majority of his treatment. Asked if that film was also in any way drawn from her own life, she responded with a quick and curt “no” before shifting to a lighter “But yes. All movies are a little bit autobiographical.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise in the film is that it is startlingly playful, even fun, pitched at times to the romance of their characters -- named Romeo and Juliet for comic effect -- not the heavy melodrama one might expect. By focusing on the highs and lows the parents go through as they make their way through their child’s treatment, the film looks to avoid many of the pitfalls of a disease-of-the-week weepie.
“The story of the child is the story of my son, and I would never make something about that. It’s no one else’s business,” Donzelli said. “The experience of the child, the child character, is not my experience; I don’t own it. What I was interested in exploring is what happens to the adults, what was their story and how did their love story play out through this extremely difficult challenge. That story made the son a secondary character.”
“We explore the evolution of this couple through their experience, but there’s damage, and the couple drag their way out of it,” added Elkaim. “The bond is still there, and they are united forever, yet it’s not a normative, traditional couple who will be husband and wife. There’s a transformation of how the couple is going to function; they are reinventing a new family, a new couple and a new way of living.”
The film’s vibrancy -- its lightly nuanced tone, earthy sexiness and bounding energy -- is a reflection of the strength Donzelli and Elkaim both found within themselves while dealing with their son’s illness.
“You can be funny, you can still have desire, you’re still yourself,” said Elkaim, “and all of these things are what we wanted to show.”
“It actually makes you alive; it gives you the pulse of life,” said Donzelli. “You define yourself through the challenge and find your deep self in a way that you don’t when you’re unchallenged. There’s a self-awareness and growth. Beforehand, you have a bunch of little problems, but then all of a sudden you just have one problem. It clarifies things.”
Perhaps the best example of the way in which Donzelli and Elkaim have intertwined but still held distinct their on-screen lives and their real lives is how they respond to whether they made it through the experience of their son’s illness intact as a couple.
“We don’t answer that question,” said Elkaim. “You have to entertain a certain degree of mystery. And the truth is we remain a couple in cinematic terms.”