When it comes to eating your cultural vegetables, a French film about the parents of a little boy with cancer would appear to be the brussel sprouts. Which makes the agreeable cinematic flavor of writer/director/star Valérie Donzelli's "Declaration of War"' all the more pleasantly surprising. Where one would expect somberness and a heavy-laden nature, this film goes the other way, and offers bright colors and humorous interludes. Yes, the boy's parents spend a lot of time waiting in austere hospitals, but the surroundings, even the moments shown of medical procedure, somehow never become oppressive. That's not to say that the film is without consequence - the gravity of what's at stake is perpetually felt. But more "Magnolia" than "Lorenzo's Oil", "Declaration of War" is a freeing and honest cinematic treat.
Jérémie Elkaïm and Valérie Donzelli play the winkingly named Romeo and Juliette. In their younger and freer days, they meet-cute at a party and laugh at the Shakespearianess of their pairing before joking that they must be doomed to a horrible fate. Indeed, fate's cruel hand deals them a crushing blow shortly thereafter when their toddler son Adam is diagnosed with a brain tumor. The question of directorial taste then arises - where does Donzelli get off lightening this most difficult of topics, allowing Romeo and Juliette to sing oddball love songs to one another, and tonally turn on a dime, going from dreading that their son will become brain-dead to making crass jokes? The answer is a shocking one: Experience. Elkaïm and Donzelli actually went through this with their own real-life son just a few years ago.
Others have denounced the film for being so emotionally uneven and intentionally quirky, but for me it worked. Although Donzelli is not exactly a first-time director, it's safe to say her primary experience is in acting. Nevertheless, her pacing and framing work for the story she's telling, one that she knows all too well. When in doubt, she defers to trademark Truffaut stylization, much of it right out of "Jules and Jim", and even a big nod to "The 400 Blows". Fitting, since so much of Truffaut's best works were authentic yet cinematic stories of children. In "Declaration of War", Adam is only in it as much as he has to be (which is, not all that much), but his presence is true and ever looming over everything. As far as the title goes, there is never a scene where Romeo and Juliette formally pronounce a declaration of war on their son's illness, but their years-long determination against overwhelming odds validate the unlikely heading.
The middle-American town I live in is debuting "Declaration of War' the same day as another tumultuous tale of parenting, Jennifer Westfeldt's "Friends with Kids"
. Both films center on a couple with a little boy, detailing their relational ups and downs while the child remains generally off screen. Both are of a female voice, their on-screen leading ladies also serving as writer and director. But that may be where the similarities end. Where "Friends with Kids"
is a reasonable but failed attempt at a smarter, hipper Nancy Meyers movie with a baby in the mix, "Declaration of War" understands that when a baby is in the mix, all else, be it hip, funny, or tragic, everything else in a parents life will and should revolve around that. And for that, Donzelli's film is truly smarter, and even at times profound.
Clearly Elkaïm and Donzelli had a very intense need to purge themselves of this story. Why, following their arduous and exhausting parental trauma, they chose the arduous and exhausting medium of filmmaking to do so, I can't say. (A book, a series of photos, or even a live presentation would've been infinitely easier than making than making a movie.) But that fact that did, and it's as good as it is, is reason to be grateful for their decision. Intentionally fractured and disjointed, yet completely coherent and relatable, "Declaration of War" is nutritious, yes, but more of a tossed salad than a plate of brussel sprouts.
- Jim Tudor
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