REVIEW: French Import Declaration of War Examines Couplehood in the Face of Cancer, with Mixed Results
Parts of Valérie Donzelli’s Declaration of War, which details a young couple’s struggle to keep their lives together in the face of their child’s illness, are bracingly intimate and believable. Yet there’s so much filmmaking packed around them that they flicker and fade before you know it: Between the Truffautish voice-overs and Jacques Demy-style musical interludes, it’s a wonder anyone in this sort-of drama, sort-of comedy ever gets any rest.
Declaration of War is the classic example of the small-scale movie with lofty intentions that simply tries too hard. That’s a shame, because the story’s emotional nuts and bolts are fairly sturdy, and the picture represents the kind of collaborative effort -- a semi-autobiographical one, in fact -- that generally suggests everyone involved is on the same page. The script was written by Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm, who have a child together in real life; they drew from their own experience of dealing with their son’s serious illness. They also star in the film, playing a couple named, adorably, Romeo and Juliette. Romeo and Juliette meet cute in a nightclub, spying one another across the noisy, sweaty terrain. Romeo sends a peanut flying across the room; Juliette, with lightning-quick reflexes and the luck of true love on her side, catches the tiny missile in her mouth. After a sunny montage in which the two run through the streets, cuddle, kiss and eat cotton candy together, they’re suddenly blessed with an infant who cries all the time and simply exhausts them.
That’s a normal problem, but the one Romeo and Juliette go on to face is far more daunting: When their son, Adam (played at this stage by César Desseix; in a later scene, he’s played by Elkaïm and Donzelli’s real-life son, Gabriel Elkaïm), is still a toddler, the couple discovers he has a brain tumor. Surgery removes some but not all of this malignant intruder, and child and parents are left to wage a long, uphill cancer battle.
Declaration of War is not your average cancer movie. In fact, it’s more about the parents than about the cancer, or for that matter, the child -- that’s what’s refreshing about it. The idea, as the title suggests, is that Romeo and Juliette are galvanized by their shared mission rather than torn apart by it. Even though their child is essentially a prisoner of the hospital, they still do plenty of fun things together, like go to parties and amusement parks. Maybe that’s a French balance-of-life thing -- parents may be more willing to take time away from the horrors of excessive worry and child care -- but if it doesn’t seem exactly believable, the idea of it, at least, is intriguing. The American culture of childrearing suggests that parents ought to erase themselves as human beings for the good of the child: The shared goal of keeping a child safe, happy and healthy must, by necessity, subsume everything else. Gone are the days of ’50s, ’60s and even ’70s childhoods, when benign neglect was a popular parenting tool and children were expected to learn to live in the world of adults, instead of enjoying the luxury of having adults tailor the world to their comfort and safety. Whatever its stylistic flaws may be, Declaration of War doesn’t cave to the idea that children are king; Romeo and Juliette are brought closer by the fear that they’ll lose Adam -- he’s a part of their shared life, not a special star that shines well outside of its orbit.
Then again, Donzelli may be a little too focused on Romeo and Juliette’s coupledom: Their adorableness gets too many jolts from the saccharine dispenser, and when we’re in doubt about how to feel about them, we have that handy voice-over to give us the play-by-play that covers how they’re surviving as a couple. At one point, that voice-over does a fast-forward recap of their future, and while the outcome of their ordeal seems believable in some ways, the movie Romeo and Juliette are living in – the movie we’re watching – doesn’t adequately point the way toward that future. What’s more, as actors, Donzelli and ElkaÏm seem a little too taken with their own charms; they seem to be always aware of how they’re playing for the camera. Donzelli, who has directed a previous feature -- the 2009 The Queen of Hearts -- is clearly intent on making a film that feels alive and spontaneous. The picture was shot almost entirely, except for a sequence at the end, with a Canon still camera, using natural light, and it survives the experiment admirably: It has a clean, naturalistic look.
But Donzelli just doesn’t know when to stop: There’s so much of everything in Declaration of War -- so many unruly emotions (there’s much melodramatic collapsing and crying among the extended family when they first learn of Adam’s cancer), so many stylistic doodads and curlicues (the way, for instance, the sound fades out during moments of deep dramatic intensity) -- that at any given moment, you almost don’t know where to look. And the movie’s starkest, most affecting details -- like the sight of a sick child being wheeled off for a CAT-scan in a hospital crib that looks altogether too much like a cage -- sometimes get lost in the swirl. There’s a great deal of raw feeling in Declaration of War, crying to get out. But the movie is a prisoner of its own stylish waywardness. In comparison, the emotional maze Romeo and Juliette are forced to navigate is nothing.