The French film-maker talks about Oscar contender Declaration Of War and her third feature, in production now.

French film-maker and actress Valérie Donzelli spent much of the middle of the last decade in hospital, accompanying her young son Gabriel as he received intensive treatment for cancer.

Gabriel recovered and Donzelli, whose acting career was just taking off with roles in Sandrine Veysset’s Martha… Martha and Gilles Marchand’s thriller Who Killed Bambi? as her son’s illness was diagnosed in 2003, has achieved a remarkable comeback this year after putting her career on hold for the best part of five years.

“I never looked down,” says Donzelli, who stiffens when asked if she ever feared she might have to abandon film-making. “I never allowed myself to contemplate that outcome. I couldn’t.”

Her tenacity has paid off: 2011 has been an exceptional year for the actress-turned-director. Having started out as a supporting actress and micro-budget film-maker, she is now the director of this year’s French foreign-language Oscar submission for her semi-autobiographical Declaration Of War (La Guerre Est Declarée), about a young couple coping with their baby son’s brain tumour.

Donzelli stars opposite her long-time collaborator and ex-partner Jérémie Elkaim, the real-life father of Gabriel.  Still, she points out that Declaration Of War is not a straight account of their experiences.

“We didn’t think a blow-by-blow account of our exact story would be of huge interest to audiences or would work cinematically,” says Donzelli. “We wanted to treat this tragic subject in a light way.”

Critics went wild over Declaration Of War at Cannes in May where it opened Critics’ Week. The $2.4m (¤1.8m) picture has attracted some 900,000 admissions (approximately $5.5m) in France since its release in September via Wild Bunch Distribution.
Donzelli and Elkaim, though no longer romantically linked, have since become one of France’s most ­prominent media couples, and Donzelli describes him as her “closest collaborator”.

Around the same time as Declaration Of War, the pair also co-starred in Elise Girard’s Belleville Tokyo, a romantic comedy about a young woman who is dumped by her boyfriend just months before giving birth to their child.

This year, Donzelli has also appeared in Katia Lewkowicz’s Bachelor Days Are Over (Pourquoi Tu Pleures?), in which she plays opposite French pop star Benjamin Biolay as a hesitant groom; Valérie Mréjen and Bertrand Schefer’s  Iris In Bloom and Guy Mazarguil’s L’Art De Séduire.

She is now directing her third feature, Main Dans La Main (literally, ‘hand in hand’), at the Ménagerie de Verre dance studio in eastern Paris. Produced by Edouard Weil of Rectangle Productions, with France 3 Cinema and Wild Bunch and backing from Canal Plus, the $5.4m (¤3.9m) film is about the relationship between an unworldly glazier and the sophisticated head of the Paris Opera’s ballet school. Elkaim stars with rising actress Valérie Lemercier, who recently finished work on Astérix And Obélix: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

“It’s about an unlikely couple who meet and literally can’t let one another go,” says Donzelli. “It’s a love story, examining human ties and also loss.”

She co-wrote the script with Elkaim and Marchand, who has been a friend ever since Who Killed Bambi?. Donzelli, who has a small role in the film, wants to use dance sequences to tell the story.

“We’re not talking big-set dance sequences like in a musical, but rather dance will be incorporated into the movements of the actors,” she explains.

“I’m beginning to feel the pressure mounting,” she admits. “This production is a lot bigger in terms of the cast and crew than my previous two films. I’m used to working on a tiny budget, with a stripped-down crew… On my first film, I would send the sound man off to buy the props in between takes.”

Main Dans La Main started shooting at the end of October and continues for seven weeks in the Lorraine region in northeastern France, as well as scenes in Paris and New York.

It was Elkaim who first pushed Donzelli to make the leap from actress to director, after she complained of not being able to get acting work. “He just said, ‘Write your own films,’” she says.

Donzelli came up with the 2009 The Queen Of Hearts (La Reine Des Pommes), in which she plays a hopeless romantic. Elkaim co-stars in the guise of three different suitors: Pierre, Paul and Jacques.

Donzelli, who says the film was made for just $9,400 (¤7,000), shot the final scene first, while on an impromptu holiday in New York.

On her return she convinced producer Jérome Dopffer, whose credits include Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies and Jaime Rosales’ Tiro En La Cabeza, to put up part of the budget, self-financed the rest and pulled in numerous favours.

The Monk and Harry, He’s Here To Help director Dominik Moll appears as a jogger; Marchand plays a policeman, and Dopffer, a flasher, while Biolay, who is an old friend, wrote the soundtrack.

Released in February 2010 by Shellac Distribution, The Queen Of Hearts attracted around 30,000 admissions ($183,000), and, importantly, became a significant calling card.

Weil came on board Declaration Of War after his wife, Bachelor Days Are Over director Lewkowicz, asked Donzelli to send him a copy of The Queen Of Hearts. “I met her for a chat, at which she talked about several projects,” he says. “But Declaration Of War seemed the most interesting and so we got to work.”

Donzelli’s fast-paced, energetic style has earned comparisons with the French New Wave film-makers of the 1950s and ’60s. “I like the films of Eric Rohmer and Francois Truffaut but I watch them simply because I like them,” Donzelli says. “I don’t have a huge cinema culture — Jérémie’s the cinephile, not me. My style comes more from the fact I’m used to working with few resources. Once I start shooting, I go quickly. I have a vision in my head of what I want and I go with that.”

After Main Dans La Main wraps in mid-December, Donzelli has a slew of other projects in the works — among these, a romantic road movie, resurrecting her character from The Queen Of Hearts in a story set in and around Naples in Italy.

She is keen for George Clooney to co-star. “If anybody can get George Clooney on board, Valérie can,” says Weil. “Once she sets her mind on something, she usually gets there.” ns

  • Donzelli’s breakthrough acting role was as the lead in Sandrine Veysset’s Martha… Martha in 2001, followed by a key part in Who Killed Bambi? in 2003 and a supporting role in Anne Fontaine’s Entre Ses Mains in 2005.
  • Her first collaboration with director Katia Lewkowicz was in 2008 short C’est Pour Quand? Lewkowicz later introduced her to producer Edouard Weil, the director’s husband.
  • In 2008, Donzelli directed short film Il Fait Beau Dans La Plus Belle Ville Du Monde, and in 2009 made her feature directing debut The Queen Of Hearts.
  • Weil greenlit Declaration Of War in 2010. In the same year, Donzelli starred in four more features: Bachelor Days Are Over, Belleville Tokyo, Iris In Bloom and L’Art De Séduire.
  • Declaration Of War opened Cannes Critics’ Week in 2011, was released by Wild Bunch, and selected as France’s foreign-language Oscar submission. Sundance Selects has US rights.
  • Donzelli is now shooting her third feature, the musical comedy Main Dans ­ La Main.