One of the more interesting films I have encountered in recent memory is France’s 2011 selection to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film award at the 2012 Academy Awards, Declaration Of War. Declaration Of War takes a nightmarish experience and presents that story in a wholly unique and fascinating way. For those who see the film, the approach might strike some as callous, unfeeling, perhaps even alarmingly absent of proper emotion. On the other hand, the film takes so many risks and features so many strange and fascinating surprises that I found myself compelled by the experience, unsure of where director and star Valérie Donzelli and co-star and co-screenwriter Jérémie Elkaim were taking their deeply personal story.
As a former couple who faced the difficulties found on screen in their real lives, Donzelli’s film introduces us to a man and a woman, named Romeo and Juliette (Elkaim and Donzelli, respectively), who meet in a nightclub, begin a relationship and soon thereafter learn that they are pregnant. Settling in together, they prepare for their baby’s arrival, and once Mom recovers from having a son, named Adam, Juliette returns to work, Romeo stays home, and the parents try and build a life together around their son.
One day, however, problems begin to surface with Adam – his face swells and becomes asymmetrical, he starts to hang his head with increasing frequency and his health has taken a marked turn for the worse. As his symptoms continue, Romeo and Juliette take Adam to their pediatrician, then a specialist, then for tests. Shockingly, the parents hear the news that no parent, or anyone, frankly, would ever wish to hear. Adam has a tumor mass on the right side of his head and faces surgery. The doctors are unable to determine whether it is benign or malignant, but they must operate and attempt to remove the mass as soon as they can. Fraught with fear and uncontrollable sadness, Romeo and Juliette must dig deep within and look for optimism in the face of a skeptical team of doctors banding together to try and save young Adam’s life.
And exhale. Declaration Of War is a film that takes a tragic premise and foregoes conventional storytelling completely. Avoiding all expected pathways, Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaim’s script incorporates romance, comedy, a musical number, and the necessary drama to envelope the viewers into a world that, cinematically speaking, is strange and unfamiliar.
The film’s title references not only the battle to save Adam and defeat his medical ailment, but serves as a reference to the day that the United States and allied forces invaded Iraq in March 2003. Coincidentally, Adam has testing that same morning and the film plays off that juxtaposition modestly, but effectively. Much of the subject matter of Declaration Of War seems custom-made for melodramatic trappings and formulaic emotional moments; however, perhaps the obviousness of those trappings led Donzelli and Elkaim to move in wildly unique directions.
Moreover, there is a realness here that some may feel is pretentious, but I found rather refreshing. In the face of tragedy or difficult circumstances, it is alright to share a laugh here and there; to lose yourself in a moment every so often. As Adam works through his health issues, Donzelli and Elkaim’s Romeo and Juliette show themselves being real, vulnerable, and trying to take steps forward in the face of what may be an ultimate and seemingly insurmountable loss. There is a beauty in trying to be yourself in moments of adversity and perhaps the stunning flourishes that Donzelli and Elkaim place within their very personal story are a further illustration of that.
France was wrongfully ignored for an Oscar nomination last year in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the extraordinary drama Of Gods And Men and I am not sure the stodgy Academy will appreciate the low-budget look and naturalistic feel of Declaration Of War. What I can appreciate is that even if not every scene works and the film may come off as a bit ponderous in places, the unfettered vision and determined intent of Valérie Donzelli is exciting. Without spoiling anything specifically, I will say that Donzelli and Elkaim’s story has a fulfilling conclusion, if not a bittersweet one for she and Elkaim personally, mirroring the events of their real lives together. Declaration Of War is a film worth finding and being challenged by and is slated for a theatrical release in January 2012. Seek it out and you will find a drama unlike anything you have seen in quite some time.