Declaration of War (La Guerre est déclarée, France, 2011)
Directed by Valérie Donzelli
Declaration of War is the story of a young couple facing any parent’s worst nightmare: a very, very sick child. The film opens in the “present”; there is a young boy of about six or seven with his mother. The film then reverts to flashbacks, briefly covers the romance of Romeo and Juliette; the ill-fated lovers meet at a party, run around Paris happily, and give birth to Adam. Adam is slow to walk, quick to vomit, and begins to show a slight facial asymmetry. For awhile, the film dances around the possibility of Adam’s sickness: are Romeo and Juliette just worrying too much, as new parents, or is there something wrong with their son?
Eventually we find out that indeed, he is very, very sick. Hospital visits, meetings with doctors, anxious waiting periods during surgeries and recoveries – the film covers it all. Adam is eventually moved, more permanently, to a children’s cancer ward and the lives of his parents come to a complete stop – nearly.
But it is not a story of suspense. The frame story, set up at the beginning of the film, already told us that Adam survives. There is tension, but not as much as the title of the film might lead one to believe. Tension arises between Romeo and Juliette, between their extended families and themselves, but is it really a declaration of war? The parents are somewhat immature but tackle their challenges together and, for the most part, without disagreement; extended family members pipe up every now and then with a difference of opinion but are quickly shut down with Romeo and Juliette’s clear and logical arguments about strategy and survival. They make military-like statements in this regard, but a declaration of war? Against whom? I’m not sure.
The story is a true story; director, writer, and actress Valerie Donzelli and her co-star, Jérémie Elkaïm, experienced this hardship together with their son, Gabriel, who was diagnosed with cancer as an infant. The fact that it is not just a true story, but a reality lived by the creative forces behind the film, make it difficult for me to judge the film. OK, that’s not true. I have some problems with the film, but it feels odd to lodge the complaints against the movie knowing how personal it was for the filmmakers.
I feel like a failure of New Criticism in doing so, but perhaps it is the nature of my complaints that causes some discomfort in lodging them. For instance, I find the film terribly uneven. The film is not what one might expect judging from the plot. It is not a simple, sad family drama. There is a musical number; there are numerous party scenes. It is very cliche to say this, but it is very French in that way; I don’t think that an American film about a sick child could include some of these scenes. But even from a more technical standpoint, the film is uneven; the beginning of the film has a very “video game” feel to it, with choppy editing and screeching sounds; this is replaced later in the film with pure melodrama (the scenes where the extended family is informed that Adam has a brain tumor is probably the most out of place) and then more typical, quiet scenes in hospitals and waiting rooms.
I also wonder, too, about the selection of names. Romeo, Juliette, Adam…such weighty names. It seems strange to take a personal, true story and then add in Romeo and Juliette; I hate to say “trite”, but truly, why impress literary baggage onto a story that has enough sadness? Is it merely to include this element of fate? At one point, Juliette meets an old friend in the street and she tells her that her son has cancer. ”How did it happen? What is the explanation?” her friend demands. ”There is none.” Juliette insists. ”It just did.”
Declaration of War was the French submission of the Academy Awards this year. Check out the trailer here: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1350409753/