Directed by: Valérie Donzelli
Written by: Jérémie Elkaïm, Valérie Donzelli
Starring: Valérie Donzelli, Jérémie Elkaïm and César Desseix
The very first thing my friend said to me after the screening was “that was excellent.” When I told her about what they meant by based on a true story she said, “Wow. I’m so glad I saw that now.” It’s a way of paraphrasing what I’m about to start explaining in greater detail but I wanted to offer a viewpoint other than my own firstly.
Declaration of War is the story of a French couple, the boringly named (and a rare low point in a ninety minute high) Romeo and Juliette who fall madly in love and one day wake up with a child, Adam. Romeo dreams of owning his own record label and Juliette becoming an artist but these must be put on hold – or abandoned completely, as the case may be – as the reality of raising Adam become a full time job, much to their surprise. They’re first-time parents so we don’t hold it against them. It’s a subject that is being broached a lot by Hollywood recently – Knocked Up, Life As We Know It, What To Expect When You’re Expecting – and they’re all formulaic products, easily predictable films regardless of your level of enjoyment. Where these films are happy to trail a very well trodden path, War throws you a curveball.
At the risk of possibly spoiling the film (though most of the press points this out immediately), after the first act we find the answer to their questions regarding Adam’s health – a brain tumour. It’s hinted at quite heavily with miscellaneous cutaways to some manner of growth inside the body, reminiscent of the cell images in the “dirty movie” that Travis Bickle takes his date to in Taxi Driver. Once this is revealed the insular world of perfection that the two parents have cuccooned themselves in comes crashing down and they throw everything at it to make it go away.
This is usually the part where the parent goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure the child survives. And by extraordinary I mean borderline ridiculous. (John Q is the first to come to mind.) Where the strengths of this film lie is it’s ability to take the mundane, very human route of seeing doctors and consoling with family and turn it into something fascinating. This isn’t a sick-child story, it’s a film about the relationship between Romeo and Juliette and how strong it is, if it can survive such an ordeal as this. It’s a declaration of war against everything life is throwing at them.
I don’t want to use the true story notion as the crux as so many people do – “Oh, it’s based on a true story? That means it must be amazing!” – rather as a means of explaining what makes this film so special. The two leads Valerie Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim wrote the film. That was based on their own experiences. In case you missed it, I’ll say it again – the writers and director (a very mature Donzelli) are telling their own story by playing themselves that’s about the very thing they went through years ago, themselves. They had to revisit all the horror and the heartbreak all over again and act their way through hell. And act they did.
I’m not familiar with either of them but can someone put this film on the major distribution list already? The performances, especially Donzelli (considering she’s pulling triple duty – director, co-writer, lead) are a standout and need to be applauded. Even the supporting cast, many of who are also playing themselves, help with carrying this little film over the finish line so strongly it’s a testament to Donzelli’s directing. There are plenty of cutaways to help smooth out the editing process but they’re not jarring or poorly framed, unlike the aforementioned. Rather, they help to explain further the depth of the relationship between Romeo and Juliette, an incredibly optimistic one at that.
If I had a major issue with the film, it’s the soundtrack. A lot of reviewers are raving about it but I can’t help but feel the dissociative tendencies of the songs chosen. Maybe that was Donzelli’s point in certain scenes but more often than not they just felt annoying. In one scene I thought the speakers were playing up, such was the unpredictable phrasing of the beat. In addition to this, there’s the occasional musical element thrown in to express how they’re feeling. I’ve always considered this to be complete utter nonsense in non-musical films and has only ever had a jarring effect on me. And in a bad way. Not even Trier could get it right in Dancer in the Dark. It’s a method that completely polarises the audience and I always questions the very reason for its inclusion – here it comes across as wasted film.
But these are the only complaints in the hundred minutes we get to know the characters. The most poetic moment in the film, and there’s a lot, is the very final frame. I won’t spoil the path that gets them to that moment (and it’s potentially bleak, given the weather at the time) but offers enough hope that you’re not a nervous wreck walking out of the cinema after the credits roll. It’s otherwise a great film that deserves all the praise it’s been receiving – a true rarity these days.
Nicholas Brodie – follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire
Declaration of War is released in Australia on the 31st of May 2012, and was released in the U.S.A on the 27th of January 2012.