No money, a tiny crew, a depressing storyline – and a hit French film

Tim Palmer talks about his article ‘War and Peace in the Contemporary French Film Ecosystem: Valérie Donzelli’s La Guerre est declarée’ 25:1 (2017)

What does this article tell your readers about modern and contemporary France?

There are so many aspects of modern France to enjoy, but for me one of the richest is its cinema.  I always say to my students or audiences at film events I program: Whatever you enjoy most about moving image media ― genre spectaculars, avant-garde experiments, documentaries or essay films, animation, political films, shorts ― it’s being made in France right now, and often in surprising new forms.  The key is to know where to look.  The aim of my essay is explore the work of one of contemporary France’s most nimble and creative filmmakers, Valérie Donzelli, hopefully raising awareness about someone who is, I believe, one of French cinema’s most brilliant practitioners.

What authors, concepts or theories do you draw upon in your work? What topics/ issues do you address? How is your argument different from previous arguments in the field?

Most film studies and film journalism tends to focus on either auteurs (filmmakers as individualists, artists) or cultural studies (how a filmmaker or group of filmmakers embodies a discourse like, say, a specific political tendency).

My approach, in contrast, uses an ecosystem model.  I see French cinema as a series of concentric circles, a profoundly conversational system, of film practitioners at work alongside each other, whose interrelated activities are regularly shaped and stimulated by organisations like film schools, grant-giving bodies, engaged ciné-literate audiences, and film festival programming committees.

To put it another way, there’s long been a term used to describe French cuisine, which is terroir: the idea that, say, quality French brie or sumptuous Burgundy wine is created via the soil of specific places, with flavours supplied by the ingredients of the water, the rocks, the weather, the whole landscape.  Thomas Parker just published a really good book about the history of the terroir concept, in fact.  But what I argue in my essay is that, rather like its cheese and wine, France also has a cultural terroir, a cinematic terroir.  Certain aspects are imparted to French film through the system that nurtures it, the system in which its filmmakers move.  In other words, the constitution of this ecosystem is the best way to understand what makes French cinema French.

On the one hand, of course, people are people ― going about their artistic business, trying to innovate, representing themselves and their interests, making breakthroughs in expression or reinforcing norms, testing out new technologies, responding to what their peers are up to, and so on.  But I also think French filmmaking is nourished by a larger environment too: what work is getting critical notice, debate, and intensive reception; what aspects of emerging or existing film practices are most compelling; what kinds of cinema are winning grants and being picked up for subsidised export by the French State at film festivals and cultural events around the world.  Bottom-up and top-down, French cinema emerges.  For me, it’s the best source of cinema in the world today ― the most diverse, the most dynamic, the most progressive.  In something of a paradox, French cinema is reliably unexpected; it can be counted on to do unusually distinctive things.

The starting point for my work on Donzelli, then, was how her film, La guerre est declarée / Declaration of War was, in 2011, nothing less than a vital flagship film for France ― one of the most resplendent creations of the film ecosystem that year, essentially.  People flocked to a film that was made for almost no money, with a tiny crew, about a baby diagnosed with brain cancer, whose parents (essentially playing themselves: Donzelli alongside her ex-partner and co-writer, Jérémie Elkaïm) try to maintain a romance in the face of total disaster.  Almost out of nowhere, Donzelli was a sensation.  In France, she was widely interviewed, asked about the goals of her partly autobiographical work; celebrated for her low-budget production creativity; feted at Cannes and then treated as an emblem of French cinema’s buoyant health.  The main question, for me, was, why?  What about this film distilled French film’s identity, its export mission, its proclivity for energy and stylistic invention?  This article is my response.

 How does this article fit into your previous/ current/ future research?

I’ve been researching, writing about, teaching, and programming contemporary French cinema for over a decade now ― since I became a film studies academic, in fact.  Elsewhere this inspired me to write a larger-scale exploration of twenty-first-century French filmmaking: Brutal Intimacy: Analyzing Contemporary French Cinema (2011).  After that, I was commissioned to write a single monograph, about one of France’s most notorious and divisive films, Irreversible (2015).  In between those, I co-edited a collection of essays, Directory of World Cinema: France (2013).  So French film has long occupied my attention! 

Most of my research into world cinema ― often returning to France ― takes me toward films, figures or case studies that have fallen between the cracks, been lost from view, been written out of history.  Or, alternatively, I try to champion those filmmakers who have, in my opinion, been misrepresented, unfairly pigeon-holed or dismissed, or those with whom I feel a creative affinity.  Pedagogy often drives my research interests, and after screening and workshopping Donzelli’s work in my university classrooms for quite a while, I found there just wasn’t an accompanying essay for us all to read, to put her filmmaking in context.  No one had really devoted any time to analysing Donzelli’s filmmaking in English, to get below the surface of her extraordinary ongoing career, so I set out to do it myself.  After thinking about Donzelli’s work for years now, working in France and the USA, I wrote up my findings in spring 2016.  Modern & Contemporary France agreed to publish it, so here we are.  Above all, though, I hope the article is as interesting to read as it was to research and write.

Hero Image – Valérie Donzelli at the première of ‘La Guerre est déclarée’. Photograph by Yann Caradec from Wikimedia Commons.

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