Spanning eight turbulent years, Declaration of War (La guerre est déclarée) nods at Shakespeare in the lead characters’ names, but then the rest of the film is all French.
The lovers Roméo (Jérémie Elkaïm) and Juliette (Valérie Donzelli) face overwhelming odds when their 18-month-old son, Adam (César Desseix), is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Here, Paris is the setting, rather than the name of Juliette’s suitor. And the battle is with cancer, rather than with the heads of two households, divided.
Bordering dangerously on the melodramatic, the film veers into the dynamics of relationships. The characters in this film are poignantly connected, mimicking Elkaïm and Donzelli’s real-life connection—the two collaborated on the screenplay, pulling from their experiences with their own child, who experienced a near-fatal illness. Donzelli even directed the film.
The first hour of Declaration flushes with French New Wave fecal matter: running montages through Paris, close-up food consumption, short-sentenced narration, transitions with moving blood cells and ludicrous singing—yes, singing. After Juliette and her Roméo find out about their son’s tumor, they share a love ballad that sounds like an unmelodic version of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
The hospital scenes are undeniably realistic; the lighting gives Roméo and Juliette a nauseous yellow glow. The inattentiveness of nurses and the disappearing Dr. Sainte-Rose (Frédéric Pierrot) bring an element of tragicomedy. Doctors move rapidly through the hospital, a series of tunnels, some freakishly bright and others graffiti-painted. All doctors have moments of light comedy, one physician answering a child’s toy phone instead of her own, and another doctor examining Adam’s facial asymmetry with glasses lopsided across her nose.
After this madness, however, the film becomes a serious cinematic endeavor, rather than an Umbrellas of Cherbourg knockoff. When Adam cries on his way to a CAT scan, Juliette looks utterly hopeless. When hospital staff refuses her entry into the exam room, our heart strings snap. The film is an honest ode to any parent who has watched her child deal with things beyond her control.
Unfortunately, absurd drumming in the background breaks this moment, and Juliette runs around the hospital, a headless French poulet. I actually laughed out loud.
The family dynamic, however, comes to fruition when Juliette and Roméo, lying in a hospital bed near their son, discuss their fears about his operation. As they joke with one another, despite their twisted situation, we finally see that this relationship is something special.
Roméo and Juliette have an inner strength. Most of the time, they are steady rocks in the stream, despite an onslaught of water and waste. Juliette often winks at Roméo to break the tension; Roméo then smiles and lifts his hand.
This is what finally makes the film worth watching.
The nearly two-hour marathon of pain and redemption, regrettably, ends with an abrupt narration. But the classic story of a young couple facing hurdle after hurdle in the name of their true, star-crossed love still hasn’t lost its magic.
DECLARATION OF WAR
Directed by Valérie Donzelli
With Valérie Donzelli, Jérémie Elkaïm, César Desseix and Gabriel Elkaïm