Title: Declaration of War
Director: Valerie Donzelli
Starring: Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim
Declaration of War is based on reality, and it couldn’t really be any grimmer–in fact, it could have easily of played out as a simple, emotional drama, something more like Babel. What makes this even more difficult is that the director, Valerie Donzelli, was directly involved with the events that took place–it was her son, along with her husband, Jeremie Elkaim, that endured these traumatic, life altering events. Her newborn son, Adam, is vomiting violently, having difficulty walking and his face has taken on an abnormal shape. They learn that Adam has a brain tumor, and his life is at stake. Yet in spite of all of this, Donzelli finds time to show us that her relationship with her husband and son never changes; it only grows stronger, and their times together sometimes produce humor and sadness in the same breath It’s nevertheless a tough subject, but one done with such compassion and understanding, it ironically makes it all the more difficult to endure.
Even in the opening minutes, we are reminded of the importance of humor and silliness in life. Elkaim, who plays Romeo, spots Juliette (Donzelli) from across a party where everyone is dancing frenetically on the floor. Yes, they are Romeo and Juliette, and they acknowledge this striking coincidence. Romeo flicks a peanut over to Juliette, who allows it to land in her mouth. For some reason, this became a very memorable scene in the film. Perhaps one that helps show their relationship at its best. All the way through, it reminded me distinctly of classic French New Wavers, such as Godard and Truffaut, whose early playfulness pervaded their work and made it all the more endearing. Montage played an integral role in the early French New Wave, and it does here, as well. It makes Declaration of War all the more effective.
But Donzelli will always be on point to remind us that it’s not all a joke. In fact, it’s deadly serious. In one memorable montage, the entire family is notified of Adam’s tumor and the results are heartbreaking. The togetherness of this family is shown with such ease, with dramatic and unrelenting consequences. It not only affects the parents, but the entire family. The actors all show it, too; they are all very strong in their roles, even several of the minor characters are natural and un-theatrical. Our leads, Elkaim and Donzelli, are an absolute thrill to watch as they live out their own history on screen. Even more admirable, is their ability to confront such a tough subject twice in their life– once in privacy with their family and friends, while the second time being in front of an audience. It’s the act of opening old wounds, thus pushing the healing process forwards. They remove their masks and show the most intimate, troubling time in their lives for an audience.
Shot with a loving, intimate handheld style, the film jumps from each event to each event with an urgency. But Donzelli never forgets to include simple moments, as well– which are usually some of the most important. She’s also included a voice over, also like early Godard and Truffaut, that doesn’t necessarily help progress the film along, but it actually helps us reflect on the events as they unfold. Discussions with family members are had, fights are had–sometimes all in montage–and it all is held together by a tight voice over that also adds a bit of comedy into the mix. It certainly isn’t superfluous. What also makes this film special is the ability to not only show how it unfolds in their lives, but also the consequences of each event. New routines are built that revolve around Adam, something un-saccharine in its execution. The theme of togetherness and his importance to their lives never once leaves the frame.