“I’ll tell you the real stuff,” Juliette promises her lover late in “Declaration of War.” “Not the fake real…you know what I mean.” We do, thanks to unorthodox approach taken by the film’s star and director Valerie Donzelli, who turned real-life personal turmoil over the brain cancer contracted by her two-year-old son into a drama that features no less than three omniscient narrators, one musical number and unexpected creative flourishes around every turn. That she is joined by Jérémie Elkaïm, the father of her child, as the Romeo to her Juliette – the names of the romantically-entwined pair whose relationship begins to fray as they cope with their son Adam’s illness – only makes the film more surreal, though it comes with the filmmakers’ understanding that they can make sense of things in art that they simply can’t in reality.
One can tell from the title alone that Donzelli isn’t timid, her “Declaration” intended to galvanize a generation of peers hitting their thirties who she believes are “unprepared for war” by jolting audiences into feeling something, anything. Whether that’s empathy for Romeo and Juliette as parents or as lovers pushed to the brink, it hardly matters, but Donzelli’s idea of direct cinema is one that places a premium on engagement rather than technique and while the film’s inconsistent in tone, it’s gloriously in tune with life. Before the film traveled to Sundance to make its U.S. premiere, Donzelli and Elkaim were in Los Angeles where the two shared their thoughts on how Donzelli became interested in filmmaking, the film’s inventive use of music, and what they learned by retracing their footsteps in and out of the Gustave Roussy Institute near Paris where their son was treated.
Since the experience was autobiographical to some degree, were you immediately compelled to create art out of it or did it take some time to decide this was something you wanted to make a document of?
Valérie Donzelli: It took a very long time and one of the most important things was it took time for our son to heal. Only when he was completely cured, were [we] even [thinking] was the idea possible to maybe tell our story.
Jérémie Alkaim: The fact that he was cured allowed us to take an approach to movies that we aspire to as a film that can have ideals embedded into the story. [Ingmar] Bergman stated that all movies posed the question, “Does love exist?” And when we go to see movies, we want to feel something of life. We want to feel joy, we want to feel that we’ve experienced something that’s brought something new to us. So that was really the intent was to take this story and bring it to our own filmmaking.
I’ve heard filmmakers often say that they make films to answer questions that they have – by returning to all the same places where these events took place, did you have any epiphanies?
JA: A very interesting thing happened. When our son was ill, we never wanted to ask the doctor what the percentile he fell in, how much of a chance of being cured. In our head, we imagined a 30 percent chance to come out healthy in the end, but when we wrote the script, we thought well, it would be more dramatic to lower that percentage to only ten percent, so that’s what’s in the film. When we were filming, I took the doctor aside and asked, “Is it credible? We changed it a little bit in the script. We went from 30 to 10.” And the doctor said, “No, it was always 10.” So that’s something that came as a big surprise.
Valérie, you once studied architecture, which came as a surprise to me since it’s so rule-based, and as a filmmaker, both your films have appeared to be refreshingly unruly. Was that what attracted you to filmmaking?
VD: In a way, there is a similarity to architecture because architecture in essence is taking an idea or a vision and trying to make it concrete. And yes, there are rules and constraints, but there are as well in cinema and the correlation is the same. You have an idea, a vision and you have to implement it with all the constraints and fight for it to become concrete.
Actually, what made me leave architecture was all those rules and I loved the aspect of creating the models and the creative aspect of it, but the heaviness of the process was too much. I didn’t know that much about the rules of filmmaking – in a way that was liberating because I just did things the way I wanted to do them and there was a freedom there that I couldn’t find in architecture.
JA: What I admire in Valérie’s filmmaking is there’s a sort of abandon. She’s not afraid of being ridiculed and trying things and so in many ways, she’s like an artisan who works with her hands, like a sculptor. The form and the process go hand-in-hand together. Directors are often their own censors. Things are too formal because they’re afraid of listening to themselves. They’ll stop themselves. And Valérie doesn’t have that censorship.
One direct beneficiary of that is how you use music in the film. My favorite scene in the film is when Adam has his first catscan and the dissonance of electronica music provides such an insight to your mental state as a mother, but I also wanted to ask since this is the second film [after the 2009 romantic comedy "Queen of Hearts"] where you’ve unexpectedly broken into song, what is it about singing that you can get across that you can’t in dialogue?
VD: I explored that with the first film and then this one too. To sing something is a form of pure expression, that moment is a declaration of love and if you say the words, it’s theatrical, it’s flat, it’s difficult to absorb, but then to be sung, it brings poetry to it and allows it to have a purity that you can’t find in dialogue.
JA: We’re not going to become pop singers or have a career in singing. We’re aware of that. [laughs]
You’re not shabby, though. Is music something you think about before actually writing the script?
VD: The work with the music was done at the inception of the writing and we write to music and are inspired by the music. Jérémie knows a lot about music and brought a lot to me. so while we were working, there were some scenes that are informed by the music and then some music that was informed by the scene, but it’s the work we do at the very beginning, at the inception of this screenplay.
JA: The film had to carry a lot of emotions and we knew that and often the music has this kind of epidermic quality – it just communicates a deep emotion. So we knew from the beginning that the film would be very musical because it’s not on an intellectual level. It’s on an emotional level. The music can serve the story.