The opening night film at this year's Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival, this exuberant and deeply moving film follows a new couple, Romeo (Jeremie Elkaim) and Juliette (Valerie Donzelli), who must face the ultimate test when they discover their new born child is very ill. Gathering their friends and family together, they confront the ordeal together as a form of warfare. Donzelli infuses the story with unexpected verve using a host of cinematic techniques, music and heartbreaking performances that results in a film about a contemporary couple who surprises even themselves with their ability to fight not only for the life of their child, but for each other. The result is a film that will bring tears to your eyes but will dazzle you with its contagious vitality for life. DECLARATION OF WAR draws on the real life experiences of Donzelli and co-star/co-writer Elkaim and what they went through when their own son fell ill.
Sickness is a risky subject matter to deal with in movies. While disease is one of the easier antagonists to introduce into a plot, being that it doesn't need a motivation or to be made relatable, it can also come off as cheap, played out, and cliched. It is however one of the scariest and most fascinating subjects in humanity, and when used well in cinema can create classics such as Philadelphia, John Q, and Beaches. So it is as well with Valerie Donzelli's 2011 release Declaration of War (La guerre est declaree), a French film that was selected as the entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
Declaration of War follows the relationship of the theatrically named Romeo (Jeremie Elkaim) and Juliet (Valerie Donzelli), who meet at a party and go on to have a fast, exciting, and loving relationship. Soon after they become involved, they have a son named Adam. Through Adam's early life, he shows alarming signs of neurological problems and developmental stunting. At two years old he is diagnosed with brain cancer and is recommended for surgery. On the day the first bombs are dropped in the Iraqi War, Adam goes in for his first major surgery as Romeo and Juliet are left to tend to their family and friends concerns while also keeping their own sanity throughout the trying ordeal. The movie becomes an amazingly real look at the lives of parents and people who must adjust to the very real possibility of a child's death and the procedures that they must go through in order to prevent it.
This movie is a semi-autobiographical piece, with both Donzelli and Elkaim having gone through the situation together and both writing the script. This gives the movie its one large advantage over many movies about the same subject, it is a faithful description of life with a sick child with little to no imagined heroics or extra tragedy added to the situation. Romeo and Juliet's characters give up everything in their lives in order to provide the surgeries, treatments, and care that are required to cure Adam. They also live extremely fun and highly escapist lives outside of their responsibilities in order to keep their sanity intact throughout the ordeal. Through this they lose their jobs, money, and many of their friends, though they spend very little time fretting or reflecting on this being that their focus is completely on their child's life. The simultaneous rising above and sinking in is a very realistic reaction to dealing with such a severe situation, yet one that has been very rarely touched upon in cinema to date.
If there are weaknesses to be found in the movie it is that it can at times indulge in some cinematic stereotypes and cheap tricks. The biggest example of this is an understated yet very much out of place duet between Romeo and Juliet about half-way through the movie. Though it isn't enough to throw off the message or tone of the movie, it does slightly pull the audience away from the real world feel of the story that the rest of the film relies on. This is a small defect however compared to the rest of the film's all around fantastic execution.
The strength of Declaration of War's script is once again based in its honesty. The plot points, twists, and character development do not go with or against the expectations and hopes of the audience, but instead follow a set path of what occurred in these people's lives and allows the audience to attempt to empathize with them. Through this we are allowed to both admire the bravery the couple has, as well as see them break and hide in ways we may hope we would not if put in the same situation.
One of the scripts greatest achievements is that it does not shy away from the almost party like atmosphere that people who have to face someone they love dying often go through (surrounded by friends and family, cared for, allowed to indulge without judgment, and freed from many of their responsibilities.). The movie also goes over the repercussions that must be faced by this lifestyle and the reactions of people who don't have the facilities to deal with them.
Despite being very unforgiving with its view of sickness and treatment, the movie is never without a hopeful tone. This is most evident during the darker moments, such as when Adam's cancer is discovered to be more serious than previously thought as well as when the couple runs out of money. Yet instead of any large, over blown scenes of breakdown or hammed up rising above, Romeo and Juliet tend to instead become more militant and cold in their battle against Adam's sickness as it worsens. This is a rare thing to see in movies, but an extremely realistic look at human coping and resolve.
Being a movie that has no real recognizable actors attached to it gives Declaration of War an advantage of having the audience only able to connect the actors to the characters in the movie. The script plays well to this, giving no real large scenes to any one actor and allowing them to simply play the roles out to serve the plot. This is not to say that the actors don't stand out while playing these roles. Elkaim especially has some extremely intense and unnerving scenes of fantastic anger and self-pity, which is a brave thing to accomplish while playing a character based on yourself. Also Elkaim and Donzelli play a fantastic set of young lovers/parents, which most of the movie's screen time is dedicated to.
The side characters of Romeo and Juliet's parents, friends, and acquaintances are also played extremely well into the story. Their roles begin as that of a support group, attempting to assist Romeo and Juliet through the ordeal and be strong for them. They ultimately however become dependent on Romeo and Juliet's courage, unable to process the situation as well as the couple and having to take orders from those they were attempting to alleviate the burden of in the first place.
January 27, 2012