Declaration of War Review


Welcome to indie film hell, where childhood cancer is stylized in a way that makes it seem twee and inconsequential. It’s fine if a director, known or unknown, wants to make something for the hipster set. Go ahead, pack in all the playful technique, skinny jeans, and Sigur Ros music you want into your stupid movie. What’s unfortunate—and I’d argue just plain wrong—is when gravely serious subjects are handled in such a manner.

That’s where Valérie Donzelli’s Declaration of War comes in. It’s not hard to guess where this film is going once its main characters introduce themselves to us as Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) and Juliette (Donzelli herself), though the very beginning is a framing device set a half-decade after these two first meet. Juliette is in the hospital with her son, Adam. The doctor calls his name, and we see her waiting patiently while he undergoes a CAT scan.

Cut to a party, presumably years earlier, where Juliette is fighting off the unwanted advancements of several potential suitors before she catches the eye of Romeo. Their courtship is a quick one, and before you know it, Juliette is giving birth to a chubby baby boy. Neither she nor Romeo is quite ready to be a parent, but they’re both admirably committed to their new duties. Things get complicated, however, when Adam begins to show signs of slow development. They take him in for a checkup, and their pediatrician’s concerns are serious enough that a neurologist is called upon for advice. He locates a large, aggressive brain tumor, which requires immediate surgery and extensive chemotherapy. It’s going to be a long fight, they’re told, but the boy can win it if Romeo and Juliette keep it together and be strong for their son.

It doesn’t take long for Declaration of War to lose you (the framing device strips the narrative as a whole of any real dramatic tension), but the magnitude of its crimes don’t make themselves evident until the film’s second half. This is when the film’s narrator skips entire chapters of Romeo and Juliette’s lives, when house music accompanies Juliette while she receives awful news, and when the couple, while apart, telepathically sings the same forlorn song, stealing a page out of PTA’s Magnolia playbook. Donzelli is clearly attempting to make familiar material edgier—something that should be encouraged—but she goes about it all wrong. Her off-kilter flourishes strip the film of any sincerity. In other words, we watch only because it’s on, not because we feel anything.

The performances are mostly competent, and the two leads have decent chemistry (maybe because Elkaïm and Donzelli, in fact, have a child together). The film also succeeds at depicting the way large families cope with tragedies like this. The scenes showing Romeo and Juliette relaying bits of news to their parents and friends are some of Declaration of War‘s best.

Beyond that, however, there’s little to get excited about here. It’s a film that takes risks and has big ideas, but they come across as phony. With so many great foreign titles out there, why waste your time with something like this?

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