There are few things in life as devastating and traumatic as having to watch your child confront a life-threatening illness. I assume so anyway. My own kids were booted out of the house at the age of seven in the hopes that they would go make something of themselves, so they may have already kicked the bucket for all I know. But from what I understand a deathly ill child is an all around terrible experience.
Romeo and Juliette learn this first hand after they meet, make sweet love, give birth to their son Adam nine months later, and soon begin to take serious notice of his behavior. He’s vomiting more than would be considered normal, his head has a constant tilt, and one side of his face seems slightly swollen.
Upon their first meeting they joked incredulously about their names commenting that they’re most likely doomed to a terrible fate, but their child’s health is not a tragedy they had considered. Now the two twenty-somethings who signed up for little beyond a casual but loving relationship find themselves in the trenches of a fight for their son’s life. But unlike most films on the subject Declaration of War is uninterested in a melodramatic or treacly narrative. This is a film about hope, optimism and the unwavering love of a parent for their child. This is war.
“Young, happy, in love. Life awaits, open armed.”
Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) and Juliette (Valérie Donzelli) expected life’s normal struggles. You can’t fall in love with names like those and expect smooth sailing. But when he becomes worried that something is wrong with Adam Juliette’s reaction is immediate dismissal. Like any parent, she doesn’t want to think about such a thing let alone believe it. They reluctantly bring Adam to a pediatrician who quickly suggests a neurologist after noticing slight facial asymmetry.
The specialist’s diagnosis confirms their fear. Adam has a brain tumor, and the road ahead will be an extremely difficult one where the odds will rarely lean in their favor. The couple takes their emotional lumps, but they surge ahead with a strategy focused as much on attack as it is defense.
Donzelli and Elkaïm also co-wrote the film with the former shouldering the directing duties too, but in addition to being double and triple threats the duo also have a very personal connection. The story is based on their experience with their own son’s fight with brain cancer as well as the toll it had on their relationship. That kind of intimacy along with the subject matter could have easily resulted in a weepy, movie of the week type of melodrama, but Donzelli and Elkaïm keep things lively and energetic throughout.
We’re privy to the sexy joy of their first meeting and early days through the frustrations and stress of Adam’s illness. The pair engage in epic cigarette binges to calm their nerves, rely on friends and family for support, and the night before their son’s operation they give voice to their biggest fears about the surgery’s possible complications. What if it results in Adam becoming a blind, deaf mute? Or a black, queer dwarf. It’s a serious and dramatic scene, two parents sharing their deepest fears for their child, but their escalation to the ridiculous rescues it from a maudlin depression.
As unexpectedly welcome as that scene’s tone is the film as a whole follows suit with a dynamic and spirited presentation. Donzelli’s directorial style (this is her second film) appears to be one infused with an eclectic aesthetic whose primary goal is movement. She’s like an arthouse Neveldine/Taylor, only, you know, good. That’s not to say the screen is in constant motion but that Donzelli moves (mostly) effortlessly between scenes of sorrow and ones more playful, from bursts of fun to sweetly tender moments, and from dramatic narration to the leads lip-synching their way through what could easily be a music video. The score in particular is responsible for much of the shifts in emotion as it pumps adrenaline by way of anthemic and pulsing music.
The acting is fine throughout from both the multitude of supporting characters as well as the two leads. The real life ex-lovers maintain a solid chemistry between them, and they do a fine job of showing both the attraction as well as the frictional differences. This is a good thing as the two are the film’s real focus. It’s Adam’s illness, but it’s their struggle. That distinction works for most of the film, but there are times where the momentum lapses as the story diverts from expected details and events to follow their emotional divergence instead. They don’t hurt the film as much as they pause the effect of it.
Declaration of War could easily be accused of being more style than substance as it at times seems to skirt the drama inherent in the situation, but just because the focus is on the parents here instead of the disease or the child doesn’t mean it’s not telling a deeply personal and heartfelt tale. It’s a different take on a familiar story to be sure, but it’s still an emotional and engaging experience. And if nothing else it introduces viewers to the fine French idiom “Don’t count eggs in the hen’s ass.” So there’s that.