The battle of Cannes: La Guerre est déclarée, by Valérie Donzelli

By Fernando Ganzo

(leer en español / lire en français)

After what we said in yesterday’s review about digital projections, it is a sincere pleasure when someone refutes your arguments, forcing you to stand corrected. The honor goes to Sebastian Buchmann, if he is not the best director of photography in french cinema today, he is not far from being it. In La Guerre est déclarée he does insane things: shot in digital, projected in digital, the film doesn’t renounce to a certain formal ambition in respect to the use of color, how to work with the focus, the darkness, the space... some of the shots could have been signed by Godard and Coutard. It’s madness what Buchmann does when he shots such dull and neutral spaces like a hospital.

In his beautiful review, Arnaud Hallet says that the film is very simple and very strange, that is, very beautiful. And I can’t think of no better way to describe what Buchmann does, I don’t know how to explain that in a film without any visual underlining, without any violent indication concerning feelings, seeing a baby stretcher can be something so terrible and at the same time so ordinary.

The matter is, indeed, serious: a young couple discover that their son Adam, about two years old, has a brain tumor. And however the film is not sentimentalist, nor mournful, because:

a) The prologue of the film shows us Juliette (Valérie Donzelli) with a kid about 8 years old, who we suppose is his son, undergoing a cerebral scanner (without the need of the recurrent close up of the patient inside the scanner). With that prologue, any attempt at emotional speculation with the illness of the child is dismissed. We know he is going to get over it, that he is not going to die during the tests and operations that he suffers. It is not the suspense that thrill us, nor what make us shed tears.

b) The film is lively, recently I talked with Francisco Algarín about the pleasure we got from the last film by João Nicolau. So many ruptures, so many surprises, so many changes of genre gave the film that brilliantness of seeing something so alive. Our conversation delved into the risks of that policy of change and rupture, about how difficult it is to break the tone without ending up doing just anything that comes to mind. Donzelli does it thanks to the constant prevalence of the character and his conflict, and the rejection of realism, with capital r. In La Guerre est déclarée we visit the hospital, lives begin, we catch up with friends, houses are painted, songs are sung, we have doubts, we dance, we remain silent, we write and enjoy doing it, we hold back, we take decisions and smoke those cigarettes that we only smoke when we are so afraid, we love.

Somebody said that, in the 20th century, wars stopped being wars to turn more into natural disasters. One could be dragged by a war as one could be dragged by a tornado. Or a cancer. To accept atrocity, the rising of a new era, that’s what the characters do and what the film does. You can have a child with cancer and go to a party, you can make a movie about the most distressing possible subject without placing the audience in an inferiority position, without killing that privileged relation.

At the first party in the film, Juliet and Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm, who had a brief role in Night and Day, arousing the envy of the protagonist) met, gazing at each other from a distance. For a moment we might think we are back in La Reine des pommes, Donzelli’s first film, where at the begining we were shot at point blank range by a series of scenes of insincerity and humor. When Serge Bozon, who portrayed briefly Julia’s hysteric boyfriend, gets violent contemplating the scene, something similar begins to happen. The narrative is so fast and so unreal that it is hard to belief that later it can stop and start again. The last party in the film, the last party Romeo and Juliet will have together, will turn into a kiss party where everybody kiss each other and play songs, they are in a community and it is artificial. In that moment, for the first time, Romeo cries, and it is only natural.

And those coming and goings are what permit the introduction of the pathos, the crisis, the families (full of presence in every shot in which Brigitte Sy and Michèle Moretti appear, the former began acting for Arrieta and Rivette, and since Biette’s death she seems determined to give everything she has in every film, even if it is a mediocre one), it even uses a song by Benjamin Biolay, lenghty fade-outs, fragments from experimental films, voice over by different narrators, magic tricks. And there still is a civic side to the film; almost like in a film by Vecchiali (although much is talked about Truffaut and Rohmer’s influence), La Guerre est déclarée refuses to abandon completely the battelfield, the conflict between the characters. It is there, it never fully ends, we must sink in it.

Maybe that’s it, maybe it is the evolution of what the actors do in Donzelli’s two films, particularly what between her and Elkaïm in La Reine des pommes started off as a game (with him playing all the new men she uses to forget his boyfriend who has left her, obviously played by him as well), and here is fully realized, or what she does with Beatrice Straël, who in that film was a broad with a weird eye (hilarious) and in the new one she plays a Pediatrist with a strange diction, but with a similar combination between the written form and the physical one, between what comforts you and what makes you laugh. Donzelli’s cinema is her, she represents it to us, even if she doesn’t appear much.

Or maybe it is what we see and what we don’t, or seeing a baby that suffers without the need of close ups, it is already there, or that the break up doesn’t need to be shown, because it was already there too. Whatever it migh be, I agree with Arnaud Hallet. There must be something very special in it to make us cry when a Nintendo DS appears.

Epilogue: The battle of the washing powder

Even if cinema is the 7th art, washing powder has beaten it. Washing powder is what certain filmakers use to make their movies work as a washing powder commercial. Some believe that the audience can be subjugated just by showing it a graphic, a detail of synthesis, with a voice that explains the cause and the effect. It’s almost magic. In the old days, in the detective films they used to say that. if it was any good. one could solve the mystery at the same time as the detective in question. At least that’s what they used to tell me when I was a kid. Then appeared the washing powder commercials, and the TV shows, that universe that for many is the safeguard of the best American cinema. The detectives that explain everything that happens appeared, the cartoons that make us belief anything. CSI appeared, then House, and even the ghost of Sherlock Holmes died. It is very sad to see a film that tells it’s audience one thing and does the opposite, it is sad to see the audience laughing with Wu Xia.

Summarizing, it is sad that the garnish ate the steak.

Translated from Spanish by Juan M. Pastora.