A nightmarish story of love
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Mar. 23, 2012
True to its title, "Declaration of War" is a visceral, forthright visit to the front lines of battle, where superhuman courage is called for as life-or-death skirmishes turn into a long slog of survival.
In this case, the battles are being fought in emergency rooms, hospital corridors and operating theaters in Paris, where an 18-month-old toddler named Adam is undergoing a series of tests and treatments and is receiving increasingly frightening diagnoses.
Told from the point of view of Adam's young parents - Romeo and Juliette, appropriately named given the tragic backdrop of their giddy romance - "Declaration of War" plays like a bold, vital, exuberant adaptation of Joan Didion's memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking," as two mere mortals gird themselves to face an enemy that remains confoundingly mutable and abstract.
"Declaration of War" is told mostly as an accordion of vivid flashbacks, starting when Romeo (Jeremie Elkaim) meets Juliette (Valerie Donzelli) in a nightclub, seducing her by popping a peanut into her mouth from several feet away. The two embark on a sunny, starving-artist romance, culminating in the birth of their darling baby boy. When the child begins to show signs of distress - vomiting up his milk, exhibiting delayed development - Romeo intuits that something is amiss while Juliette remains in denial.
Set against the backdrop of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, "Declaration of War" limns the dramatic, largely unspoken process by which watching, waiting and worrying finally take the shape of explicit intention and action.
When that switch is flipped, Romeo and Juliette enlist a compassionate army of parents, in-laws and friends as they prepare to storm the opaque world of the medical establishment, from unhelpful ward staffers to arrogant, aloof surgeons. But "Declaration of War" is no anti-doctor screed: One of the film's most sympathetic, dryly amusing characters is a brilliant doctor named Sainte-Rose, played with deadpan finesse by Frederic Pierrot. (Donzelli makes sure that viewers know it's okay to laugh by introducing them to Adam as an 8-year-old in the film's first scene.)
Donzelli directed "Declaration of War" from a script she wrote with Elkaim, based on real-life experience with the son they had together. The story's factual roots give it added poignancy and the unmistakable ring of authenticity, but it shouldn't detract from the film's sheer artistry.
Rather than the maudlin melodrama or clinically realist document it could have been, "Declaration of War" holds higher aspirations, borrowing from the musical-fantasy world of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and the self-conscious sound and image design of Francois Truffaut to create an ambitious portrait that's part nightmare, part love story at its most vibrant and transcendent.
Like a frank but poetic report from illness's front lines, "Declaration of War" gives the audience a harrowing, vicarious trip to that far shore, a journey that in Donzelli's sensitive hands results in newfound understanding, empathy and emotional resonance.
Contains brief profanity, nudity and adult themes. In French with English subtitles.