Starring: Valérie Donzelli, Jérémie Elkaim, César Desseix, Brigitte Sy, Elina Lowensohn, Michéle Moretti, Philippe Laudenbach, Bastien Bouillon, Béatrice de Staël, Anne Le Ny, Frédéric Pierrot, Gabriel Elkaim.
Director: Valérie Donzelli
Rectangle Productions, Wild Bunch, Canal+, Ciné, Cofinova 7, Uni Etoile 8, Arte/Cofinova 6, Région Ile-de France 8, Sundance Selects, and IFC Films.
Written by: Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaim.
|“Why did this happen to us? Why Adam?” – Romeo (Jérémie Elkaim)
One of the more interesting films I have encountered in recent memory is France’s 2011 selection to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 2012 Academy Awards, Declaration Of War. Declaration Of Wartakes a nightmarish experience and presents that story in a wholly unique and fascinating way. For those who see the film, the approach might strike some as callous, unfeeling, perhaps even alarmingly absent of proper emotion. On the other hand, the film takes so many risks and features so many strange and fascinating surprises that I found myself compelled by the experience, unsure of where director and star Valérie Donzelli and co-star and co-screenwriter Jérémie Elkaim were taking their deeply personal story.
As a former couple who faced the difficulties found on screen in their real-lives, Donzelli’s film and introduces us to a man and a woman, named Romeo and Juliette (Jérémie Elkaim and Donzelli, respectively), who meet in a nightclub, begin a relationship and soon thereafter learn that they are pregnant. Settling in together, they prepare for their baby’s arrival, and once Mom recovers from having a son, named Adam, Juliette returns to work, Romeo stays home, and the parents try and build a life together around their son.
One day, however, problems begin to surface with Adam – his face swells and becomes asymmetrical, he starts to hang his head with increasing frequency and his health has taken a marked turn for the worse. As his symptoms continue, Romeo and Juliette take Adam to their pediatrician, then a specialist, then for tests. Shockingly, the parents hear the news that no parent, or anyone, frankly, would ever wish to hear. Adam has a tumor mass on the right side of his head and faces surgery. The doctors are unable to determine whether it is benign or malignant, but they must operate and attempt to remove the mass as soon as they can. Fraught with fear and uncontrollable sadness, Romeo and Juliette must dig deep within and look for optimism in the face of a skeptical team of doctors banding together to try and save young Adam’s life.
And exhale. Declaration Of War is a film that takes a tragic premise and foregoes conventional storytelling completely. Avoiding all expected pathways, Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaim’s script incorporates romance, comedy, a musical number, and the necessary drama to envelope the viewers into a world that, cinematically speaking, is strange and unfamiliar.
The film’s title references not only the battle to save Adam and defeat his medical ailment, but serves as a reference to the day that the United States and allied forces invaded Iraq in March 2003. Coincidentally, Adam has testing that same morning and the film plays off that juxtaposition modestly, but effectively. Much of the subject matter of Declaration Of War seems custom-made for melodramatic trappings and formulaic emotional moments; however, perhaps the obviousness of those trappings led Donzelli and Elkaim to move in wildly unique directions.
Moreover, there is a realness here that some may feel is pretentious, but I found rather refreshing. In the face of tragedy or difficult circumstances, it is alright to share a laugh here and there; to lose yourself in a moment every so often. As Adam works through his health issues, Donzelli and Elkaim’s Romeo and Juliette show themselves being real, vulnerable, and trying to take steps forward in the face of what may be an ultimate and seemingly insurmountable loss. There is a beauty in trying to be yourself in moments of adversity and perhaps the stunning flourishes that Donzelli and Elkaim place within their very personal story are a further illustration of that.
France was wrongfully ignored for an Oscar nomination last year in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the extraordinary drama Of Gods And Men and I am not sure the stodgy Academy will appreciate the low-budget look and naturalistic feel of Declaration Of War. What I can appreciate is that even if not every scene works and the film may come off as a bit ponderous in places, the unfettered vision and determined intent of Valérie Donzelli is exciting. Without spoiling anything specifically, I will say that Donzelli and Elkaim’s story has a fulfilling conclusion, if not a bittersweet one for she and Elkaim personally, mirroring the events of their real lives together. Declaration Of War is a film worth finding and being challenged by and is slated for a theatrical release in January 2012. Seek it out and you will find a drama unlike anything you have seen in quite some time.
Should I See It?
Those who like to experience something new and different, be it foreign-made or not, will be thrilled and struck by the risks and audacity that Valérie Donzelli exhibits in making this film, about her personal experience, in this way. Defines the word uncompromising.
Allows its characters to be human and real in a way that other films tackling the subject of an infant facing a potentially life-threatening disease would never do, if made stateside. That it shares with us moments that are seldom ever acknowledged or spoken about when parents are privately dealing with a life-changing situation is refreshing.
France’s entry for the Foreign Language Oscar will already be, or not be, a nominee when it arrives in theaters at the end of January 2012. It is worth a look regardless of whether it scores that coveted nomination or not.
First of all, it is a French subtitled film about a 2-year old boy suffering the possible threat of malignant cancer in his brain and the right side of his head. That this is a real-life experience endured by the filmmakers and lead actors in the film may be of very little consequence to those who would never consider watching a film with this subject matter.
Those expecting an insightful drama must also account of romance, humor, and at least one musical number where Romeo and Juliette sing a ballad to one another. The unconventional elements of Declaration Of War will likely alarm and challenge some of the most engaged of viewers.
The low budget look and feel of the film may also pose as a challenge for potential viewers.