It is love at first sight when Juliette (Valérie Donzelli) locks eyes with a stranger across a crowded room in the French domestic drama “Declaration of War.”
The man’s name is Romeo (Jérémie Elkaim), and so their meeting seems fated, although they wonder if some kind of tragic future awaits them. The relationship is, in fact, idyllic, and what brings the pair crashing back to earth is not passion giving way to the banality of daily life but a diagnosis of brain cancer that befalls their infant son.
Directed by Donzelli and written by her and Elkaim, it is a subject the two know well. Their own son, Gabriel Elkaim, similarly battled life-threatening illness as a tot while his parents could only stand by helplessly. The family’s experience inspired “Declaration of War,” but Donzelli and Elkaim are firm in their assertion that their film does not tell their story.
“We wanted to make a fiction film,” Donzelli says during a recent phone conversation.
“To bring more fiction to the movie, it started with the names we gave the characters, Romeo and Juliette,” Elkaim adds. “We wanted people to identify very strongly with them being lovers in a kind of collective fashion.”
While Gabriel’s illness was something Donzelli and Elkaim lived through, the inspiration for their story came more from the way they could use it as a springboard for a more universal tale. Through the story of this couple, they could comment on something they had observed in society that had nothing to do with a child’s illness.
“We wanted to talk about a generation that has never lived through a war, that has not really been affected by a war and, in fact, is a really spoiled generation, and we wanted to talk about that through this story,” Elkaim says.
“What we’re really interested in is what’s going to happen. It’s the path, the road that we took that we lived through during this experience. At the beginning, Valérie wanted to do an action movie, but her desire initially was to create something that was really a comedy, that was much more comedic, in fact.”
“Declaration of War” does have its fair share of humor, a lot of romance and even a musical interlude. What is perhaps most surprising is how it sidesteps pathos when so much of it is about a baby fighting for his life. Elkaim likens Donzelli to a sculptor, molding and reinventing the film at each phase of production: writing, shooting and editing.
“She’s like pounding into her block of granite, and the film is emerging as it’s going along. She has a hands-on intelligence,” he says, praising Donzelli for her fearlessness in making a film with such an unexpectedly light tone.
Surprise and action
“The idea was not make a film where we were going to throw in a variety of elements,” she says, adamant that the disparate elements simply arose from the demands of the tale they were telling. “It was to be able to tell the story as best as we could, and so by bringing in all those things, that was our way of doing it and doing it with surprise and action and the rest.”
“Valérie is not afraid to jump one tone to another. The comedy was a way of bringing a certain sort of modesty to the film,” Elkaim adds. “In a way, when characters go through something like this, it was having them not accept this kind of injection of despair and unhappiness that automatically kind of comes with subject matter like this. We were able to tell a story where even in moments like that there is the opportunity of blossoming and growth, because we know what we’re fighting against.”
Donzelli also notes that although there is a sick baby in the film, the film is not about a sick baby. The focus is really on the couple, and the calamity that befalls their family is just another factor for them to deal with as they navigate their relationship.
“We knew from the get-go that it was going to be a love story we were telling. That was the most important thing,” she says.
The pair knew from the start that even though they were writing a fictional story, it would still be close in certain aspects to their own reality, simply because they were drawing on the lives they’ve led, but they did not want that to color their characters’ journey. Remaining objective was a crucial aim while working out their script.
“Our motivation was not an exorcism of our experience,” Elkaim says. “In fact, what we were concerned about was finding the appropriate distance, because we didn’t want it to be a hostage taking.”
Making things a little bit easier was their discovery that they could in fact divorce themselves from Romeo and Juliette’s story even as it veered so close to their own.
“It wasn’t like revisiting it,” Donzelli says. “The work itself kept it from feeling like we were revisiting the subject. So it was not too painful to work on the movie.”
Intermingling life and fiction
There is one aspect of “Declaration of War” where real life and fiction happily intermingle. Donzelli did not want the audience obsessed with whether the baby lives or dies, and so she bookends the movie with scenes of the now 8-year-old little boy. When his parents told him about their new movie, Gabriel Elkaim wanted to know who would play the child.
“He was the one who wanted to act in it,” Donzelli says.