Donzelli: Turns personal battle into triumphant ‘War’ story

10 Directors to Watch 2012: Valerie Donzelli

Age: 38
Homebase: Paris
Inspired by: “There are films from Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy and Eric Rohmer which I love, but I’ve never watched them thinking ‘how did they do it.’ I was more interested in the stories they were telling.”
Reps: Agent: Cecile Felsenberg (UBBA)

With her second feature, “Declaration of War,” actress-turned-helmer Valerie Donzelli proved that with enough spunk, a tiny French dramedy could become an international sales hit and reach broad audiences.

The $1.7 million pic — a semi-autobiographical and singularly uplifting tale about a young couple who discover their infant son has a rare brain tumor — was the opening-night selection for Critics’ Week at Cannes, has grossed $7.5 million at the Gallic B.O. and sold to all major territories.

A savvy, self-taught director, Donzelli’s career behind the camera kicked off with her 2008 Super 8 short “Il fait beau dans la plus belle ville du monde,” followed by “The Queen of Hearts,” a comedically offbeat feature debut in which she plays a thirtysomething Parisian desperately trying to get over a breakup.

With “Declaration of War,” Donzelli could have chosen to make a heavy-duty drama chronicling what she and former partner Jeremie Elkaim (who co-stars and collaborated on the script) went through after their son Gabriel was diagnosed with cancer in 2001. Instead, she chose to turn the experience into a celebration of life — “a love story packed with action, a la Stanley Kubrick,” she says.

In both “Heart” and “War,” the free-spirited Donzelli plays with filmmaking codes: using a narrator, song interludes and an energetic pacing that’s earned her comparisons to New Wave auteurs. Of the musical asides, Donzelli says, “They’re perfect to express pure feelings and corny enough to be poetic.”

A fan of Blake Edwards and Woody Allen, Donzelli also uses touches of burlesque and absurd humor. “I don’t sacralize cinema. I like mixing materials and doing improbable things in the editing room as if the shoot was a cake dough,” she says. “And I have no problem cutting a beautiful scene if it slows down the film.”

Donzelli is shooting her third — and biggest — directorial effort so far, “Main dans la main,” a comedy toplining well-known thesp Valerie Lemercier and Elkaim.

As Edouard Weil, who produced “War” and “Main,” puts it, “Donzelli belongs to that breed of comedy auteurs like Francois Ozon. She boasts her own original filmmaking style and also has mainstream ambitions.”

10 Directors to Watch
Zal Batmanglij |

Valerie Donzelli | Gareth Evans | Philippe Falardeau | Mike ‘Mouse’ McCoy & Scott Waugh | Gerardo Naranjo | Matt Piedmont | Michael R. Roskam | Lynn Shelton | Benh Zeitlin

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