From France, a gentle, uneven, but touching and true chronicle of the fight to save the life of a child with brain cancer called Declaration of War is doubly notable because the baby’s real-life mother is the film’s director, Valérie Donzelli, who also costars and coauthored the screenplay with the baby’s father, actor Jérémie Elkaïm. Although they are no longer together and are living their own separate personal lives, their story, fictionalized but still autobiographical, bonded them for life. Apparently, they are best friends whose dedicated collaboration was the only way they could tell this harrowing story. It’s a brave effort any way you slice it.
The irony of a man named Romeo (Mr. Elkaïm) meeting a girl in a disco named Juliette (Ms. Donzelli) is so wonky they can’t stop laughing. Despite her prediction that, like Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, a terrible fate awaits them, a torrid affair begins. Happiness is imminent, until the baby’s sudden arrival reminds them of their differences. She’s an artist who earns the living while he stays home and minds the infant. She has two sisters and a father with money who buys them an apartment. An only child who never knew his father, he was raised by a single mother who is an outgoing, independent lesbian. But the loose ends come together anyway, tied by the domestic strings of love and parenthood, until a pediatrician in Marseilles detects a brain tumor. Friends and family descend—Romeo on a motorcycle, her parents in a car, his mother and her younger wife by train. But this is very much a story told by a young filmmaker, about two parents forced to face a tragedy beyond their years, making immature choices that defy conventional wisdom. First, they flee Marseilles, leaving the adults behind, hitchhiking to Paris with their sick baby in their arms. Then, during a nine-hour brain surgery, Romeo and Juliette lie in bed imagining worst-case scenarios about the possible repercussions. What if the baby ends up blind, a deaf mute or a dwarf? Or queer? “And a right-wing nut case,” adds Romeo, laughing. Humor is wedged into the anguish to relieve tension, but it’s the kind of piteous drollery only the young would find witty. The baby miraculously recovers, but the rest of the movie covers the next five years of chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, isolation in sterile rooms to avoid bacterial infections—while we’re forced to live through every minute of it.
The movie gets grimmer by the minute. The baby goes through hell. The parents go bankrupt and eventually the emotional toll drives them apart searching for peace. I won’t spoil the suspense by telling you how it ends, but I admit I admire the writing and acting of the two brave stars, who declare war on film in which there is only one enemy to fight—their child’s deadly disease. To that goal, their methods are sometimes annoying, resorting to montages, superimposed images, slow motion camera tricks and one especially irritating sequence that has the parents launching into a romantic duet, musically declaring their love like they’ve seen too many Jacques Demy musicals. For my taste, there’s entirely too much source music, from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and Offenbach’s “La Vie Parisienne” to a Brazilian bossa nova by Luis Bonfa. One violin would have done the job just as effectively, in half the time. To their credit, they have stamped a mark of authenticity on the solemnity of their ordeal by filming in the actual hospitals and rehab clinics where their own child endured years of agony suspended between life and death. But be forewarned: because so much of it takes place in antiseptic institutions, the white subtitles against the white walls are often impossible to read.
Despite reservations, I admire Declaration of War and the two stars, who used the bad things that happened in their personal lives to tell a gripping human story that reaches a positive conclusion about truth in cinema.
DECLARATION OF WAR
Running Time 100 minutes
Written by Jérémie Elkaïm and Valérie Donzelli
Directed by Valérie Donzelli
Starring Valérie Donzelli, Jérémie Elkaïm and César Desseix