Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Valerie Donzelli
Cast: Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim, Gabriel Elkaim, César Desseix, Michele Moretti, Beatrice de Stael.
Despite the title, Declaration Of War is not a war movie. Rather this film, which opened the recent French Film Festival in Melbourne, is a heartfelt and deeply personal story about a young couple who have to cope with some hardships in life when their young son Adam is diagnosed with a brain tumour.
The film is based on the real life experiences of writer/director Valerie Donzelli and her former real life partner Jeremie Elkaim, who relieve their story on screen. This is a brave and very personal story full of raw emotions and intimate moments, and told with remarkable honesty.
Donzelli and Elkaim play fictional versions of themselves here as Romeo and Juliette, a happy go lucky couple who meet at a party and fall in love. As suggested by the names given to the two central characters this is essentially a love story. However, their relationship is tested when their son falls sick.
After their young son is born things begin to slowly change as they notice that he is somewhat sickly. He cries nonstop, seems slow to develop, and has fits of vomiting. A visit to the doctor results in a diagnosis that would rock many parents. The neurologist informs the pair that Adam has a malignant brain tumour. With the help and support of family and friends, Romeo and Juliette struggle to help Adam (played as a young boy by César Desseix) overcome the disease. But the years eventually took a toll on their relationship, which felt apart under the mounting stress.
Donzelli and Elkaim have a wonderful and natural rapport that also adds to the film’s sense of realism. Many of the medical personnel here are playing themselves, which brings an authenticity to the numerous hospital scenes. In the final scenes the young Adam is played by Donzelli’s own son Gabriel, so we know that her son survived the ordeal, which brings a raw and emotional quality to the material.
This is the second feature for actress turned director Donzelli (The Queen Of Hearts), who makes some bold visual choices and uses stylish touches to propel the narrative along. However, Declaration Of War is not the downbeat and depressing experience one might expect given the subject matter. This is a touching and moving drama, yet it never becomes maudlin nor melodramatic. Donzelli ensures that the film is leavened with generous doses of humour, warmth, empathy, and life. However, the use of multiple narrators may prove a little jarring and is unnecessary. Cinematographer Sebastien Buchmann (who also shot Donzelli’s first film) brings a sense of urgency to some scenes. The diverse soundtrack, which moves from classical opera to grungy punk, also underscores the emotional journey of the central characters.
Declaration Of War is a sad but life-affirming drama that will especially appeal to lovers of Gallic cinema.