Declaration of War – Film Review
Valérie Donzelli appears to be something of a control freak. Not only did she co-write and direct Declaration of War (La guerre est déclarée), she also cast herself as the film’s lead female protagonist, as well as putting her hand up to do the make-up artistry and hair styling while she was at it. Keeping things in the family, she then enlisted the help of her former partner, Jérémie Elkaïm, to co-write the screenplay and to act in the leading male protagonist’s role and also their son, Gabriel, to play a small role in the film. Who better to cast for a film inspired by the very real life experiences of Donzelli, Elkaïm and their son? Declaration of War tells the story of a young couple unlikely named Roméo and Juliette (a coincidence that they flirtatiously joke about after meeting one another at a packed party in Paris). The two fall instantly in love and have a son together, who is tragically born with an aggressive brain tumour. It’s almost like a very professionally shot and edited home movie, with a few extra cinematic techniques thrown in.
Knowing the real-life linkage between the director, the actors and the story, Vulture couldn’t help but pre-judge the film as a little bit on the self-indulgent side. A film based on such emotionally distressing and intimately personal experiences has the danger of falling into the traps of fishing for pity or praise from its audience, simply for being “brave” enough to document a practically true story and raise it up on the silver screen for anyone to see. Declaration of War is careful to avoid this however by employing clever little filmic devices to break the tension and wrench its audience members out from their suspension of disbelief, providing welcome respite from the sombre subject matter.
The soundtrack plays a big role in cutting the tension of Declaration of War. One of Vulture’s favourite scenes is when Juliette, upon hearing that poor Adam has a brain tumour, turns around and sprints off down the hospital corridors to the sounds of a very breathy, quirky, staccato dance track rather than the typical string orchestra that Hollywood has taught us to expect in tear-jerker cancer films. The film even dips a toe into the pool of the musical genre when a scene is interrupted with a romantic duet ditty sung by the two leads. This number isn’t taken too seriously though and doesn’t expect its audience to. It’s just there to keep you smiling.
This film is very French. Despite parenting a child with cancer, Roméo and Juliette continue to smoke like chimneys and being true bohemians, they are able to find the time to drink whiskey, dance til dawn and play “Open Kiss” at parties with all their good-looking French friends in between visits to the hospital and appointments with surgeons. For a film about cancer, it is refreshingly playful and optimistic and emphasises the importance in focussing on the good things when times are tough. Roméo and Juliette declare war on illness and despair and emerge victorious.