‘Declaration of War’ Combats Tragedy With New Wave Exuberance

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CHICAGO – Few semi-autobiographical explorations of high-stakes drama have ever been as playfully exuberant as Valérie Donzelli’s “Declaration of War.” Like Jonathan Levine and Will Reiser’s equally sublime “50/50,” this film is based directly on the real-life experiences of people who faced a cancer diagnosis and lived to tell the tale. Both pictures resist mawkish sentiment while delving into the rich textures and eccentricities of life.
Whereas Reiser’s script was reminiscent of Judd Apatow’s signature brand of humanistic and improvisational comedy, Donzelli’s script (which she wrote with her co-star and real-life lover, Jérémie Elkaïm) appears to have been inspired largely by the experimental whimsy of François Truffaut. Initially, the dramatic tonal shifts are somewhat jarring, and there are moments when the film veers into distractingly twee territory. Yet for the most part, Donzelli strikes a remarkable balance between seriousness and irreverence, with occasional doses of unexpected surrealism.
The picture opens in romantic ecstasy as Roméo (Elkaïm) and Juliette (Donzelli) spot each other from across a room. He throws a peanut up in the air and she catches it directly in her mouth. Clearly, they were meant for each other. Yet this couple is too sharp to remain unaware of the ominous union of their names, and they start their relationship by musing on whether they may have inescapable tragedy in their future. The tragedy ends up materializing in the body of their son, Adam (played at eighteen months old by César Desseix), whose facial asymmetry is detected by kindly Dr. Prat (Béatrice De Staël). During the film’s first act, Donzelli cuts to kaleidoscopic imagery that is eventually revealed to be the brain tumor growing within her son. Once the news is broken, Roméo and Juliette have no choice but to declare war on a disease that they know little about. The script is loosely based on Donzelli and Elkaïm’s own experience of aiding their cancer-stricken young son, Gabriel, who eventually takes on the role of Adam himself. Though the intimately personal nature of the subject matter is undeniable, the writers insist in the production notes that the film technically isn’t “their” story. What most appealed to Elkaïm was the opportunity to omit his most painful experiences during the ordeal in order to present audiences with something good and beautiful. The resulting picture could easily resonate as one of the year’s most unlikely feel-good movies.

Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm star in Declaration of War.
Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm star in Declaration of War.
Photo credit: Sundance Selects

During the delirious early sequence where the couple tumbles into love, it’s clear that neither lover is prepared for the inherent responsibilities of adulthood. They project a youthful innocence that is both endearing and fairly troubling. There’s barely been time for Roméo and Juliette to adjust to their new roles as parents when the cancer diagnosis drops on their heads like a ton of bricks. Roméo’s first reaction to the news is rage rather than despair, and his sporadic selfishness is unappealing but also entirely realistic. It’s to the immense credit of Donzelli and Elkaïm’s script that their own characters are portrayed not as lovable, ever-chipper cartoons, but flawed and viscerally alive human beings.

Roméo often lacks patience while Juliette lacks discipline. It takes much prodding from Roméo and wise words from Dr. Prat for Juliette to realize that she shouldn’t tend to her baby every time it cries for milk. The unending cycle of hospital visits and crushing disappointments put an enormous strain on the couple’s relationship, yet their bond remains fiercely strong. In one of the film’s most surprising and memorable moments, Donzelli and Elkaïm seamlessly break into song as they silently comfort one another in the wake of the terrible news. Though they are each in separate locations, the lovers speak to one another as if they are fluent in ESP. But when they appear in the same room together, their conversation has a tendency to morph into an argument.

Sometimes the more lighthearted and self-consciously stylized sequences in the picture seem to be used by the filmmakers to detach themselves from the painfulness of the material. Three objective and all-knowing narrators are used to explain various plot developments “Jules and Jim”-style, while the soundtrack is filled to the brim with gorgeous tracks from composers such as Vivaldi, George Delerue and Luiz Bonfá, whose unmistakable “Manha De Carnaval” can be recognized from Marcel Camus’s 1959 gem, “Black Orpheus.” But for all of its diversions, the filmmakers never lose track of the story’s emotional reality. When little Adam is taken away from his parents and is wheeled away toward the operating room, the authentic expression on Desseix’s bewildered face is utterly heartbreaking.

César Desseix, Jérémie Elkaïm and Valérie Donzelli star in Declaration of War.
César Desseix, Jérémie Elkaïm and Valérie Donzelli star in Declaration of War.
Photo credit: Sundance Selects

Some films are little more than soulless machines designed to provide phony uplift in order to ensure that the escapism-seeking hordes get their money’s worth. “Declaration of War” falls into the special category of films that inspire not through trickery or contrivance, but through the organic power of a shared human experience. The couple’s stubborn perseverance in the face of despair is truly glorious to behold. My favorite scene in the entire picture takes place as Roméo and Juliette lie fearfully awake next to their son’s hospital bed. They start quietly confessing their gravest fears to one another in order to achieve some sort of cathartic release. But as they allow their imaginations to run wild, the absurdity of their nightmares causes them to dissolve into laughter. This single scene has as much truth and tangible warmth as any film in recent memory. I eagerly await Donzelli and Elkaïm’s next picture, which I’ve learned is—fittingly enough—a musical.

‘Declaration of War’ stars Valérie Donzelli, Jérémie Elkaïm, César Desseix, Gabriel Elkaïm, Béatrice De Staël and Frédéric Pierrot. It was written by Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm and directed by Valérie Donzelli. It opened Feb. 17 at the Music Box Theatre. It is not rated.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

Staff Writer

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