Film Review: French Filmmaker Finds Humor, Drama, Tension And Beauty In Story Of Critically Ill Child, Declaration Of War

Visually Quirky French Drama Finds Love, Humor And Drama In A Child’s Battle For Life

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
Declaration of War
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A young mother holds her son’s hand as he’s fed into an MRI machine. The camera zooms in on her eye. As the mournful orb begins to fill the screen, the image is intercut with shots of a loud house party. The mother, even younger, hangs out in a crowded living room—a beer in her hand, raucous punk rock blaring around her. You wouldn’t think a despondent drama about a terminally ill child would be an excuse to make with the visual razzle-dazzle. But writer-director-actress Valérie Donzelli takes a number of unexpected paths with her involving feature, Declaration of War.

The opening flashback has brought us to the moment when Juliette (Donzelli) meets her future husband, the charming Roméo (Jérémie Elkaïm). Despite Roméo’s offhanded observation that their namesakes have predestined them to a life of tragedy, the two begin a whirlwind romance. That romance culminates in the birth of a son, Adam—all before the credits quit rolling.

On top of the ordinary trials of young parents, however, Roméo and Juliette are soon saddled with an additional burden. By the age of 18 months, Adam doesn’t seem to be progressing as quickly as his peers. A couple of confusing consultations lead the new family to a neurologist, who confirms the worst fears of parents worldwide. Adam has a rare and quite dangerous tumor pressing against his brain stem. The only course of action is immediate surgery and a possible lifetime of chemo and radiation therapy.

While this situation could easily lead to a disease-of-the-week weeper, our filmmaker and star has different plans. There is humor, drama, tension and a touch of heightened emotion. But there’s precious little heart-tugging manipulation to be found. Our worried parents battle hospital bureaucracy and jargon-spouting surgeons. They juggle the ministrations and meddling of friends and family. They take out their fears and tensions on one another. In time, we begin to wonder if their relationship is strained because of little Adam’s condition, or if he’s the glue that keeps their rapid-fire relationship from cracking apart.

Taking a cue from the French new wave, Donzelli paints an objectively realistic portrait with a distinct visual flair. Her compositions are never less than beautiful. They are, occasionally, startling. Her editing is exquisitely paced. And she’s a pretty good actress, too.

Not everything works perfectly here. Though the eloquent visuals stop short of mood-shattering flights of fancy, there is one full-fledged musical number wedged into the middle of the film. (A nod to Paul Thomas Anderson’s
Magnolia , perhaps?) It’s not bad, it’s just … tonally different from the rest of the film. The film’s dispassionate, matter-of-fact narration is sometimes used to skip over some of the more essential dramatic events. The end, in particular, feels bum-rushed by the voice-over.

The title is, also, a bit grandiose. Roméo and Juliette don’t go all
Lorenzo’s Oil on this thing, searching for a miracle cure themselves. Instead, they panic, put on a brave face, fight amongst themselves, hope for the best, fear for the worst. In other words, they act like real human beings would. Donzelli ought to know. She and her partner, Mr. Elkaïm, lived through this exact situation, giving birth to a child with a life-threatening condition.

Despite the art-as-therapy approach, Donzelli is clearly in no mood for self-pity. There’s an ease and a spontaneity to this film that belies its dour topic. Quirky tonal gaffs aside,
Declaration of War is an unexpected emotional journey between birth and death that never feels less than vividly alive.
Declaration of War

What’s French for “Wheeeee!”?

Declaration of War

Declaration of War

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