Declaration of War
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The French New Wave meets the modern medical establishment in this unconventional melodrama. In short order, a couple falls in love and has a child. Juliette (writer-director Valérie Donzelli) and Roméo (cowriter Jérémie Elkaïm, the baby's father) believe something is wrong with their 18-month-old son, but everyone insists that infants cry all the time. Their instincts tell them otherwise, so they find a pediatrician (Béatrice De Staël) who listens to their concerns. At first, she's skeptical, too, but Adam's equilibrium issues lead her to recommend a neurologist, who delivers the bad news: he has a brain tumor. Fortunately, it's operable, but the situation devolves further when they find out that he'll need years of chemotherapy, which can buy a few years, but may not save his life. With every improvement, they celebrate; with every setback, they mourn (cigarettes feature prominently). If money is in short supply and if they have to put their careers on hold, friends and family are always there when they need them (Brigitte Sy and Elina Löwensohn play Roméo's parents). In drawing from their real-life experience, Donzelli's second feature starts out on a light note until fate darkens the picture, though despair never hijacks the proceedings since characters break into song or dance whenever things get too intense. It's a risky premise for a film, but Donzelli and Elkaïm have an effortless charm that pulls you into their ordeal. Not to give too much away, but the ending is happier than their Shakespeare-inspired names might indicate. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
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A: God doesn't think he's a surgeon.
A little medical humor courtesy of this year's Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film from France (English captions). It won Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Film at the 2011 Gijon Film Festival in Spain. This oddly intimate but affecting little piece is directed by Valerie Donzelli, who co-wrote the script with Jeremie Elkaim, the father of her two children and it's based on their own experience. They play a couple who meet, fall in love, and have a baby boy. Before he's a year old he is found to have a malignant brain tumor.
The Declaration of War in the title is the determination with which they confront the challenges of having a critically sick child: they keep themselves in good physical shape; they develop a plan to cope with friends and relatives; they present a united front to the medical world; they maintain a wry sense of humor; and they love their little boy without fail. As their world shrinks to the size of a children's hospital, we watch as they become familiar with the staff, the routine, the environment and the treatments. Occasionally they blow off steam by going dancing or riding on a motor scooter, but their everyday life is determined by their son's treatment schedule.
The sound track consists of some instrumentals, some songs sung by people on the screen, some rhythmic sounds that are the same beat as guys painting a wall with roller brushes, and others are just peculiar. Engaging but peculiar.... There are bits of humor scattered throughout, and given the topic matter, we clutch at them like straws for a drowning man.
The hospital staff is mostly sympathetic, but this personal crisis is just part of the job to them. Clearly based on personal experience, little touches feel authentic: the child is completely oblivious to his prognosis, he's more interested in Nintendo. By the way, the boy who plays their son at age eight is actually their own child.
For anyone who has been through this personal hell, it's satisfying to see that many of their thoughts and concerns are universal to the human condition. Amazon.com will notify me of the DVD release date.
Don't walk in thinking this is some weeper you'll need a healthy dose of Kleenex to get through. Humor, a touch of whimsy, and a whole lot of imagination are the weapons in this fight, making for one of the best and unique movie experiences of the year. After a brief and fateful courtship that the two assume will lead to disaster based on their names, a whirlwind romance follows captured in joyous moments at the amusement park, chasing one another through city streets, sucking in life at its fullest. Their relationship is taken to the next level with the birth of their son, Adam. This beautiful boy becomes the center of their world, the reason for their existence, yet unlike other films the love between the two parents never falters. It merely changes and grows into something more.
Their world is flipped upside down as the ever watchful and worrisome Romeo begins to suspect something is wrong with their 18-month old boy, and soon their storybook romance becomes one of long hospital stays, grim faced doctors, and an uncertain future. To overcome it, and to keep their doting families from falling into disarray, Romeo and Juliette decide to form a united front against self pity and the destructiveness of doubt.
Similar to the cancer comedy, 50/50, Declaration of War uses humor and a light-hearted touch to tackle what is usually depressing subject matter. Even as Romeo and Juliette go through some of their toughest, saddest moments, we see them make time to have fun, not just for themselves but with their son. They dance through the hospital hallways, sneak off to the beach, and share the occasional flirty wink. What brings the film together is the very personal nature of the story. Donzelli, who not only directed but co-wrote the script with Elkaïm, also shares a son with him who survived a bout with cancer. They bring something real to the story that most films of this nature simply can't match.
In one of the film's most crucial and uplifting moments, at a time of despair Romeo asks "Why did this happen to us?" Juliette bolsters his spirits and ours with a knowing smile and simply says "Because we can overcome it".