The French director talks to Melanie Goodfellow about her fifth film, premiering In Competition at Cannes.

“I have a predilection for love stories,” says French director Valérie Donzelli ahead of the Competition premiere of her fifth film Marguerite and Julien, inspired by the true early 17th century tale of an incestuous aristocratic brother and sister.

The picture is based loosely on an original screenplay by François Truffaut’s late screenwriter Jean Gruault, whose credits include Jules and Jim and Adele H. 

“I wanted to make a film that wasn’t directly inspired by my life as was the case with most my films in the past but I wanted to make a film which contained truth nonetheless,” explains the filmmaker.

Donzelli’s previous works range from the deeply personal Declaration of War, about a couple dealing with their child’s serious illness, which took Cannes Critics’ Week by storm in 2011, to Hand in Hand, a fantasy love story about a mismatched couple who quite literally cannot let go of one another.

Hand in Hand was clearly an invented story — I’ve never been in a situation where I was physically stuck to someone,” says Donzelli with a laugh. “But the film talks about love, about being in a relationship, fusion and separation and how love is something we can’t master.”

The director came across Gruault’s screenplay three years ago when someone gave her a copy for her birthday.

“It’s published in book format. I read it and immediately loved it and decided that was what I wanted to do next,” says Donzelli, who adapted the script alongside Gilles Marchand and long-time collaborator Jérémie Elkaim.

The latter co-stars as the tragic figure of Julien de Ravalet opposite Anaïs Demoustier as his sister Marguerite.

Donzelli has not gone for a faithful re-production of the true story’s 17th century backdrop.

“I didn’t want to do a historical reconstruction and didn’t research the historical details in any more than depth than was in the original script,” she explains.

“I wanted to make something that was more ambitious in terms of its mise-en-scene than my previous films but I wasn’t interested in making a costume drama. It’s a sort of invented past, which is more like a fairy-tale than an exact historical backdrop.”