Grief and love and coupled with great humour and poignancy in this semi-autobiographical drama from French actress and director Valérie Donzelli.
Many artists channel their grief or angst into their work, and with Declaration of War (La Guerre est déclarée), Valérie Donzelli and her co-star/writer Jérémie Elkaïm put theirs on screen for the world to see. After being encouraged into the acting profession by Elkaïm, the two developed a relationship and had a child together. Their world changed dramatically after learning that their child had a life-threatening disease, and this forms the basis of their film, which was nominated for an impressive six César awards.
When Juliette (Valérie Donzelli) spies Roméo (Jérémie Elkaïm) across a crowded dance-floor, it’s love at first sight. Upon learning each other’s names, they resolve that they must be doomed to a horrible fate. They are partly right, although these lovers are not star-crossed in Shakespearean terms. After marrying and having a child, their world is rocked when the increasingly sick boy Adam is diagnosed with a brain tumour requiring years of care and surgery. With the support of family and friends, and the dedicated healthcare workers, the pair lay it all on the line for the sake of their child.
Coming from such a personal place, Declaration of War is a heartfelt and always genuine exploration of living with grief. The declaration of the title refers to the couple rallying all of their resources in the battle against Adam’s cancer. Films about children with a terminal illness are usually about as depressing as they sound, yet Donzelli’s film determines to find the positive message at the centre of this emotional roller-coaster of a tale. Taking a few notes out of Truffaut, she recognises that films involving children don’t have to have an emotional consistency throughout. The film rapidly swings from being intensely romantic to an unbearably heartbreaking sequence where family and friends first learn of Adam’s illness. The tonal shifts include a off-the-wall love song, set to Jules et Jim montage, unabashedly sticking out like a sore thumb in this constantly shifting landscape.
Even as the film settles into the morbid monotony of living out of a hospital, constantly surrounded by illness and death, the pair still manage to find great humour and humility in the situation. Conversely, as another child in the hospital dies, there is no animosity in Roméo’s voice as he suggests that they should just move on with their on lives. As the march of time goes on, the film becomes more about survival and the legacy of the fight, with Gabriel Elkaïm appropriately playing his own 8-year-old counterpart. Having transformed the worst into a call for arms, albeit at a great personal cost, both the couple and the audience can only feel richer for having spent time with this compelling and likeable couple. Declaration of War is a rare inspirational piece of cinema, regardless of what life has in store for you.
Declaration of War is released in Australian on 31 May 2012 from Palace Films.