By its nature, war doesn’t give you weekends or nights off. There may be time between assaults, but the momentary cease-fires are unpredictable at best. So it is in Declaration of War, a vibrant and heartfelt French film that captures the mood and the memories of young parents who found themselves in the trenches fighting for the life of their child.
Though the names have been changed, this is a personal story for filmmaker Valerie Donzelli, who directs, co-writes and co-stars with Jeremie Elkaim. It is a fictionalized version of the real-life battles they waged against the cancer that threatened their infant son Gabriel and how that time tore at their relationship.
This might have been too dreadfully sad if Donzelli weren’t involved, but there is a sort of effervescence to her work that sweeps you up. As with her first film, 2009’s The Queen of Hearts, which turned her struggle with depression into a dramatic musical comedy, this too has a whimsical touch and a song. She takes things seriously, but she chooses not to cut so deep as to lose sight of the amusements and ironies that surface in even the darkest times.
The film is told in flashbacks so that you know that the baby survived, which allows you to experience their wartime without that shadow of fear that it will all end badly. The couple falls in love at first sight at a packed party: Romeo (Elkaim) and Juliette (Donzelli) lock eyes across a crowded room, the moment is broken only by her laugh and his smile when the peanut he tosses in her direction lands in her mouth. They are beautiful and playful, so entranced with each other it seems as if nothing can penetrate their world, including adulthood.
Then Adam arrives, and nothing goes as they expected. He cries for hours on end, and soon whatever they thought they had with each other is harder to find, with 18-month-old Cesar Desseix as young Adam a born heartbreaker with old soul eyes (Gabriel plays Adam at 8). With this, the story settles into the grim rituals that come with any disease, the round of doctors before you know exactly what fate has dealt you. Months pass before anyone really listens, and when the diagnosis comes, it is deadly. Time slows, and life is lived in hospitals.
The filmmaker is clearly interested in exploring how crisis changes us, what it demands and how we react. The different ways in which Romeo and Juliette cope with Adam’s situation, the frictions that arise with their families, the way in which relative strangers feel compelled to weigh in, is mined here in often unexpected, and comical, ways.
Donzelli and Elkaim deliver lovely performances; when something hits so close to home, it requires a measure of control to find the right balance for the character within that moment, and they do. This is a self-referential but not a self-indulgent film.
The tone is a result of the sort of freedom the filmmaker encourages. There is a mix of dialogue and voice-over narration, someone else occasionally chiming in to offer an opinion or an assessment.
The line between real and surreal is often crossed, perhaps never better than after getting bad news Juliette turns to walk away, alone, dejected, until something breaks and she starts running down the hospital corridor. The film speeds up too, capturing the movement in frenetic ways so that you sense the frustration and the fight vibrating through every frame.
Cast: Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim, Cesar Desseix.
Director: Valerie Donzelli.
Screenwriters: Jeremie Elkaim, Valerie Donzelli.
Producer: Edouard Weil.
Running time: 100 minutes. French with English subtitles. Playing in Miami-Dade only: Cosford Cinema, Miami Beach Cinematheque.