It’s peculiar how a film can seem for me both intermittently striking and certainly deeply felt, and yet also curiously facetious all at once. Declaration of War, a labour of personal love from French actress-director Valérie Donzelli and former beau Jérémie Elkaïm, attempts to delve with seemly moderne bravado into a crisis in the lives of two young, pretty people: Donzelli and Elkaïm cast themselves as Romeo and Juliette, who met at a party amongst Paris’ bohemian demimonde, whereupon Romeo scored a slum-dunk with an ecstasy tablet into Juliette’s mouth from across the room before underlining their seemingly magical connection when they discover their star-crossed names. Embarking on an adventure in life together, mildly frustrated by lack of success in their desired fields – he wants to start a record label but settles for manning the counter in a CD store, she wanted to be an artist – but generally happy, they have a child, Adam, who forces them onto the steep learning curve of parental responsibility. They respond with slightly neurotic but essentially, merely careful vigilance, negotiating the uncertainty as to whether peculiarities in the child’s demeanour is a major problem or minor peccadillo. But as Adam enters his second year it becomes apparent that he’s suffering from some peculiar ailment, as he can’t walk properly, often vomits, and is now visited by a face-distorting lump. Medical investigation soon proves that Adam has a large brain tumour that requires an operation, and Romeo and Juliette now move into the strange twilight world where the following events will engage every particle of their attention, and yet in which they are essentially impotent, entrusting Adam’s diagnosis and treatment to a succession of medical wizards, including the titan of the city’s paediatric surgeons, Saint-Rose (Frédéric Pierrot, impressively world-weary). “What’s the difference between God and a surgeon?” a doctor friend of Juliette’s jests: “God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.”
Declaration of War vibrates with a sense of intimate meaning that separates it from the pack of usually gruelling, mawkish dramas about such subject matter, in part because it depicts how the young parents and their families try to cope with the situation through humour and a determination to retain clear heads and their essential personality as hip, spirited, open-minded young people, rather than succumbing to the usual reactive temptations. Romeo checks Juliette’s occasional wavering towards neurotic obsession and franticness, but sometimes gives in to his own frustration in shows of bullish irritation. Similarly, the film attempts to keep its freak flag unfurled, often at its best when engaging with the couple’s scenester friends and oddball parents. I couldn’t help but feel Donzelli strays close to archness as the film validates the suffering of our good-looking young white hetero protagonists and their hipster pretences by providing them with a sufficient number of oddball relationships – check, black friend; check, married lesbian parent. The latter, Romeo’s mother (Brigitte Sy), contrasts the more traditionally bourgeois coupling of Juliette’s parents, marked by an interlude of angry sniping and recrimination, as neat signposts of clichéd traditional partnering that our heroes seek to avoid. Donzelli’s direction from the outset seeks to borrow the mantle of the French New Wave, and the film’s inclusive, multicultural bent could be argued to be more consistent and appropriate use of the New Wave’s lexicon than the backward-looking, carefully scrubbed retro bonhomie of Amélie (2001), which raided the same arsenal. There’s a great scene in which the couple escape their troubles for a moment by going to a party that becomes an “open-kiss party”, all and sundry getting in for a snog in a moment of numinous free love. Similarly well-depicted is the decreasing frequency of the times the couple get to engage with the life outside hospitals in such a fashion: later, they’re momentarily freed when Juliette’s father forgets to bring an item which they then go out to get themselves, taking the interval to snatch a break at a cafe, sitting and letting the world pass by punch-drunk quietude.
Donzelli extends the New Wave sensibility by excavating images from canonical films – an early shot sees Romeo and Juliette running hand in hand over urban nightscapes like the contemporary inheritors of Truffaut’s young scallywags – and familiar devices, like solemn third-person narration and iris fade-outs, and even a musical interlude, lending the early scenes an air of blithe romanticism and playfully louche attitude that befits the portrait of specifically contemporary young love. Rather than successfully sustain the sense of driving, expressive anarchy that the New Wave references entail, however, Declaration of War’s assimilation of such flourishes rather evokes how Romeo and Juliette’s attempts to write themselves into the great lexicon of French culture founder on the rocks of necessity and bad luck, and yet resurge in the act of transmuting trauma into art. But as the film goes on, it rather slowly but surely succumbs to more prosaic stylistics, with about fifteen minutes added to the running time by montages set to amiably lilting music, reminding me of similarly insipid interludes of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) and Jason Reitman’s Up In The Air (2009), where you can sense the director’s self-congratulation on being so artfully unemphatic whilst still cutting a slice of the cathartic cake. Frankly, in spite of the film’s charms, there were many points where I drifted far out of the film’s gravitational pull.
Still, many moments of Declaration of War feel surely ripped from personal memory, like the sequence in which the young parents snap into action when the diagnosis first comes through and rush to get their son onto a train to make an appointment with specialists, Romeo weaving his vehicle’s way at high speed through traffic, fuelled by the electric sense of crisis. It’s a scene that points to the title’s dual meaning, as the film gives the timeframe as Romeo and Juliette watch the start of the Iraq War on TV, whilst they themselves declare war on disease and unhappiness. Some lovely little fillips of behaviour come through, like Romeo and a pal obliviously painting a room with dance-like enthusiasm, and a hospital orderly tenderly picking up Juliette where she’s collapsed on the floor in exhaustion. But other moments, like Donzelli’s madcap dash through the halls of the hospital on first learning Adam’s diagnosis, and Romeo’s explosion of showy grief when he, too, learns it, struck me – and possibly this is the remnant Celt in me – as excessive, moments of actor-writer-director show-off. More deeply problematic is the fact that the film essentially evades it last act, which should depict the sundering relationship of the couple that is the sad counterweight to the successful treatment of Adam. Indeed, the film’s very first scene already assures us that Adam lives into much later childhood, thus removing much sense of suspense from the proceedings. Thus the film concludes with a reassuring portrait of survival, but it leaves a hollowness in the film's centre in bypassing the grief and making straight for the uplift. Obfuscation like this, whilst perhaps partly forgivable in Donzelli and Elkaïm’s unwillingness to delve into touchy personal territory, robs Declaration of War of any final, real penetration or fresh experience, and belongs far more to Hollywood than Truffaut. And yet, Donzelli clearly seems a talent to watch, perhaps with material that doesn't provoke the observation that maybe, sometimes, some stories are just too personal.