Beautiful Juliette (Valerie Donzelli) and dashing Romeo (Jeremie Elkaim) are two insouciant souls whose electric first encounter and rapid storybook romance is quickly followed by the birth of a child. But their lives are transformed overnight when a visit to their paediatrician results in a shocking verdict: their infant son Adam has a brain tumour. As traumatic as this news is, Juliette & Romeo accept the battle head on, and with the support of their families, friends and dedicated public healthcare workers (many playing themselves), end up revealing their strengths, weaknesses, fears and secrets to each other, as well as the world.
This is a movie about what happens when a young couple discovers that their infant child has a lethal brain tumour. It is an emotional and painful film. Explained like that in cold print, one might imagine Declaration of War as the kind of picture movie marketers like to sell as 'inspirational’, a sort of 'triumph over adversity’ tale of plucky parents and cute and brave kids etc. That implies a kind of special pleading and sentimentality that this odd and compelling movie can’t quite lay claim to. That’s not to suggest the film is a hard grind, a wallow in human misery, either.
Adventurous, often funny, and willfully strange, Declaration of War plays around with convention. It’s as much a formal experiment in sound and image as it is a human story; it attacks the subject in a poetic way and the result is a feverish and propulsive mood. The film has voice-over, flashbacks, flash-forwards, and there’s even a musical number. But the key formal and creative choice here is that in a sense, the film is a re-enactment of a true story in a highly personal and unique way. The filmmakers play the lead roles and what happens to the characters in the film happened to them.
The strategy may appear to be self-congratulatory, a self-indulgent exercise in self-made myth. But the filmmakers Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm – they co-wrote the script and Donzelli directs – are rather tough on the screen version of themselves. Their son Gabriel plays Adam, the sick kid, and in life he went through a similar ordeal as the one depicted here, but interestingly we spend little screen time with the boy. The movie is about his parents.
In the film, Donzelli and Elkaïm call their characters, with an irony they clearly relish, Roméo and Juliette. And they are both full of delusion, ego, and fear. Under tremendous pressure, they treat each other and the world around them with great selfishness. Declaration of War isn’t so much a romance about overcoming personal tragedy, it’s an exorcism, a purging of private pain that’s so intimate, you feel like you’re intruding on a secret world you have no right to.
Shot by director of photography Sébastien Buchmann in a seemingly free form you-are-there style, often in handheld long takes, the film has an immediacy that’s exciting. Donzelli and Elkaïm stage the action as 'experiences’ that never feel posed but seem to be caught on camera as if by accident. The film has a playful energy throughout and a lot of wit. Elkaïm and Donzelli, both fine actors, get a lot of comedy out of this drama. Unlike TV characters, when faced with tough questions, they never quite have the ready answers in reach; they stumble and fall and constantly embarrass themselves (and each other). Their emotional immaturity gives them a sense of entitlement that’s good for Adam – their bullying tactics get him into the right health care – but it’s terrible for their relationship. Unlike a straight medical melodrama, trauma here does not make one a better person or parent – it cracks you up and turns you into a pain in the arse.
The film is organised into short episodes, fragment-like 'memories’. Roméo and Juilette’s 'courtship’ is dealt with in a matter of seconds, and their son’s terrible illness is announced in the very first scene. (Adam is played at 18 months brilliantly by César Desseix.)
It’s a film that carefully avoids the sticky exploitative potential of its story. What Donzelli and Elkaïm want to explore is the emotional and social 'culture’ and etiquette that surrounds illness and the emotional impact on the lives of those that inhabit that experience. There are the helpless relatives, the overworked doctors with their professional unease in the face of constant near-grief, the obliging friends who offer useless but well-meant emotional therapy, the complete strangers who just find it all so sad"¦ and at the centre of it all are Roméo and Juliette and their tenuous grip on sanity. Adam’s illness threatens their lives – together. It pulls them apart as they blame each other and compete for control over the situation.
Still, as the title suggests, the film has a kind of 'never give in’ theme (though, I think it could be read as the disease that’s declaring war on Adam and his parents). And by the end of the movie, as Adam’s therapy hits critical mass, Roméo and Juliette have moved into the hospital to be near their son and watch, wait and wonder how much time they have left. It’s not spoiling it to say they endure and get through it. That I suspect was the point of making the movie. It’s a memorial to their pain; a love poem to their kid.