‘Declaration of War’ finds humor and joy in a dark place

February 22, 2012

Though dealing with quite a morbid subject: a toddler stricken with a malignant brain tumor, the French film Declaration of War tackles the subject with a grand sense of humor and joie de vivre. Based on the true life experience of director and lead actress Valérie Donzelli, this film could have easily slipped off the deep end into self-pitying melodrama. I expected as much, but the film shook my prejudices from its opening frame.

Donzelli knows how to compose a shot. The colors stand out first. mother Juliette’s (Donzelli) pale blue sweater compliments part of the cartoon panels painted on the wall of a pediatric waiting room. She sits on a red couch that matches with the black and red striped pullover of her young son, Adam (Gabriel Elkaïm, the actress’ real life son). It’s both a stark and irreverent image at once that reverberates with foreboding. Adam is about to be placed in an MRI machine. As the loud nightmare sound of the MRI scan crackles its percussive, clacking drone, the camera slowly zooms in on Juliette. She is spacing out, her hand on Adam’s foot for comfort. She reflects back on the night she met Adam’s father, Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm, who also co-wrote the script and is the real life father to the boy actor). As soon as you might feel annoyed by their coincidental names, a few seconds of witty dialogue and action redeems the contrivance.

The flashback continues with the pair’s romance-filled montage. They frolic in Paris’ streets to the perky strains of a little ditty by Georges Delerue, who has composed for none other than François Truffaut. I shall stop the comparison at that, but the film certainly pays sly respect to the French New Wave on more occasions. The couple laugh, run and bicycle together and play with cotton candy. They even share a coffee outside “Café Cherie.” A droll, unidentified man’s voice narrates the action over this ain’t-life-grand section of the film, as we meet the lovers’ friends and relatives. The scenes are so over-the-top, Donzelli seems to wink at her own indulgence in cliché. In fact, these scenes may not be literal representations of what happened. They are more about setting a tone of what it feels like to fall in love, which works on a cinematic level. To punctuate the scenes, she closes them off with an iris-in shot and then an iris-out to the beginning of bad news from Romeo:  Adam (the toddler version is played by César Desseix) will not stop vomiting.

During the following section of the film, where the couple worries over the child, the director inserts images of what appear to be networks of cells under a microscope. Glimpses of the cellular mesh quake and slither between scenes, until finally the cells seem to collapse together into black goo that flushes down a drain located off-screen. It’s a clever move that reveals a director with a strong command of the cinematic language. There is also one single and well-earned moment where she exploits the power of the rapid zoom-in.

Donzelli proves herself throughout this consistent little film. When Juliette takes Adam to his first CAT scan, she captures the complexity of this mysterious and troubling situation in little details. Juliette takes the boy to a hospital outside of Paris for the initial evaluation by specialists. Adam must be put to sleep in order to stay still for the brain scan. She accompanies him to the door of where the procedure will happen, where the technicians order her to wait outside. Adam is wheeled in crying before he is narcotized behind the closed doors. As the doors shut, she turns to run frantically in the hall, as an incongruous beat of a techno/house song kicks in. The camera shakes so hard as it follows her bolting away, she blurs away and slips out of frame. Meanwhile, in cross cut, Romeo and a friend happily repaint the couple’s apartment, oblivious to the horrible news that will soon shatter them.

Donzelli is probably best known as an actress who has dabbled in directing to so-so success, but nothing stood out beyond her native France. With Declaration of War she seems to provide France’s answer to last year’s 50/50. Declaration of War was a huge hit in its native country, grossing over $6 Million there alone. The film was so beloved, France entered it for a foreign language Oscar this year, and it opened Cannes 2011′s Critics’ Week. Besides its popularity, the film earns its right to be admired. It never drags in the misery of the situation. Even though the person stricken with cancer in Declaration of War has not even reached two years of age, the film never takes overly sentimental turns to wallow in what must have been a miserable situation to Donzelli. Instead, the film swings from one spirited scene to an emotional scene and back with an ease that never suffocates the viewer in dreariness.

Here’s the trailer:

Hans Morgenstern

Declaration of War is Unrated, runs 100 minutes and opens in South Florida on Friday for two nights only: Feb. 25 at 10 p.m. and the 26th at 8 p.m.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
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