Brave, lighthearted, elegant treatment of a couple's struggle with a child's serious illness....
Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm, co-authors of the script, star in this simple but extraordinary fictionalized version of their own actual experience as parents of a child who turns out to have, first a brain tumor, then a rare and difficult-to-treat form of cancer, and their battle, with the support of family and friends but ultimately alone, to help the tiny boy through the treatments. It's surprising but this is, first of all, a love story and is, also, curiously lighthearted, and ultimately cheering and exhilarating. Donzelli assumes quite comfortably the mantle of the French New Wave, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Agnès Varda, and fellow acolyte Christophe Honoré. Like the latter, she allows her actors at one point to burst quietly into song. These stylistic roots help to control and filter the material that is, at the same time in a rare way for a film that is a work of art and not documentary, unusually direct, honest, and unfiltered. The result is an intense, edge-of-your-seat watch that's a profile in courage, patience, and steadfastness, and, perhaps not so incidentally, an advertisement for the French medical system.
In the opening the couple follow a boy into a room where he is getting an MRI. Then, as he is shuttled into that little cave of science, come flashbacks. The couple meets in a crowded dance bar. They're fated to be a couple: his name is Romeo and hers Juliette. In a montage of Parisian romps, Romeo and Juliette quickly fall in love and live together and have a baby boy, whom they name Adam. Something is wrong: he cries all the time and often throws up. Readjusting breast feeding to a stricter rhythm helps, but the vomiting continues. Eventually in pre-school a teacher points out to Romeo that the little boy's jaw is swollen and his head leans to one side. After they see a child doctor they've visited before, she sends them to a neurologist. And then begin the examinations and decisions and treatments that will continue for several years.
The names send an essential signal: Juliette and Romeo. Their love is instant and strong, and also light and playful. Love is the essential prism through which the whole experience is seen. It gives them the strength to weather all harrowing details of this long war into which they enter without hesitation. When the tumor is discovered in Marseille and the boy is about to be operated in Paris, there is a great little scene when Juliette and Romen lie together competing to express their fears of what the worst séquelles -- the after effects, the consequences -- might be, and they go so far, they make a joke of it.
Again, the New Wave lightness in going through heavy material serves Donzelli well here. So do Donzelli and Elkaïm in their natural, buoyant performances (and it takes a pro to play yourself), not to mention the remarkable César Desseix as the 18-month-old Adam. Briefly, as Adam at 8, their real son Gabriel Elkaïm plays himself.
What could possibly be more dangerous and off-putting than the medical struggle movie with its litany of treatments, its feverish scenes of examinations, its shouting matches as alternate approaches are debated? What is more annoying than claims of sincerity to justify easy tear-jerking? But Donzelli navigates these treacherous, potentially clammy waters because she and Elkaïm approach their task with enthusiasm, panache, tact, and a certain essential detachment. Donzelli knew she was making a film, and so the writing had to be expressive, not realistic. At the same time because they had lived thorough this experience, the trappings and often the hospital staff were real -- though the family and friends are played by others. If some of the doctors are awesome, it's probably because they're real doctors. And it's managed so they play themselves well, despite what I said earlier. As Elkaïm says in an interview, they didn't want to take the viewers hostage. In fact, they're telling a story that's very affecting, not because it's theirs but because of what it is, but they want us to be entertained as well as moved. Leggerezza, lightness -- one of the essential qualities listed by Italo Calvino in his "Memos for the Next Millennium" -- triumphs here. But though I'm referencing an Italian writer, there is something very French about the elegance with which this "heavy" material is handled in La guerre est declaréee.
This film was a success at Cannes 2011 Critics Week, and Donzelli has been seen in a series of short films and early last year in her first feature, Queen of Hearts (Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2011), a simpler, even more New Waveish study of a series of boyfriends, all obediently, and ironically, played by Elkaïm. There already she showed both an ability to use her experienced partner and a light touch with serious stuff. The film is notable for its precision, its bold unconventionality, and its comic edge. Declaration of War is a more ambitious project with more complex trappings from the real world, but it's not a stylistic departure. And this too, it's important to see, is primarily a love story, about a practical and tough romance for which illness simply turns out to become the touchstone.
For some, the giddiness, the ritual jogs, the acting out, may be a bit much; or the experience may just be too harrowing despite the light touch. Cancer with a light touch is still cancer. Donzelli does bring it off in only 100 minutes, though. Secondary characters shine. Brigitte Sy and Elina Löwensohn, as Romeo's mother and her lover; Michèle Moretti and Philippe Laudenbach as Juliette's more bourgeois mother and father, are all good, though the cigarette-brandishing Sy stands out, adding immeasurably to the flavor and amusement. The doctors are essential, and Béatrice De Staël as Ghislane Prat, the pediatrician; Anne Le Ny as Doctor Fitoussi, the neuropediatrician; and Frédéric Pierrot as the godlike yet adorable neurosurgeon Professor Sainte-Rose, are all convincing and memorable, comfortable in their roles. Donzelli is specially good at conveying the mixture of awe and intimacy that infuses relations with important doctors.
After Cannes in May, La guerre est déclarée /Declaration was the must-see film of the Paris rentrée fall cinema season. Opening August 31, 2011, it fared splendidly with all the right critics (4.4 on Allociné). The film was France's entry into Best Foreign Picture competition in the 84th annual Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. It showed January 20, 2012 at Sundance and has a limited US theatrical release January 27.
Interview with Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm at Cannes about the film.
Copyright © by Chris Knipp
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