Even if the thought of a movie about two young parents dealing with their young child’s cancer diagnosis makes you want to run far away from the multiplex, give the surprising French import “Declaration of War” a try. It’s no squicky, sanctimonious “triumph of the human spirit” story.
If anything, it’s about the triumph of resilience, the triumph of gallows humor in the face of frightening news, or even just the triumph of showing up every day and being there for your kid.
Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm went through this themselves, and it’s very much their movie — not only do they star in the film, but she also directed, both of them co-wrote, and their son Gabriel appears at the beginning and end as well. And since we see their son at the age of 8 in the film’s first few minutes, it’s no spoiler to reveal that the child survives what sounds like a fatal prognosis.
Of course, the characters in the film should have seen disaster coming their way, being named Roméo (Elkaïm) and Juliette (Donzelli), but we see them meet and become immediately smitten at a loud Paris rock club. (Their falling-in-love montage is so aggressively French, complete with harpsichord and flute on the soundtrack, that Donzelli’s tongue has to be at least partially in cheek.)
Soon, the couple gives birth to young Adam, who cries non-stop and has a propensity toward vomiting; thankfully, this isn’t “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” so at least the child isn’t a burgeoning psychopath. He does, however, have a brain tumor, which completely changes the lives of his parents.
Donzelli isn’t afraid of the big emotions here; in an American movie, we would see people receive this devastating news at a distance, or with no sound, but “Declaration of War” lets Roméo fall to his knees in the middle of the street and throw his cell phone at a building, with other friends and family members showing their grief with an equal lack of restraint.
What’s almost miraculous about the movie is that, while it’s inescapably sad, it’s never maudlin or depressing. Donzelli understands that people are capable of juggling conflicting feelings, even at moments of major stress, so she lets, for example, Juliette and Roméo sing a reassuring duet to each other as he takes the train to be by her side for Adam’s operation.
There’s even a hilarious scene the night before the surgery, where the couple articulates their deepest fears about what will happen to their child, with the list of possibilities growing ever more absurd.
If a film where songs burst out of nowhere and lovers unite in a musical sequence sounds like an homage to the French New Wave, “Declaration of War” absolutely is. What’s so wonderful about the film’s flights of fancy is that they in no way diminish the emotional stakes of the piece, but they do keep the story from slogging down into gloominess. There’s a tricky balancing act going on here, but it’s one that Donzelli’s forefathers like Truffaut and Demy would admire. (One could add Godard to that list — one scene has a clever use of magical editing that’s right out of “A Woman is a Woman” — but who knows what gives that still-roaring lion of French cinema any pleasure at all these days?)
Many Hollywood treatments of disease treat operations like they’re The Big Game that’s going to solve everything, but the makers of “Declaration of War” have lived through this situation, and so they get that cancer is a long haul of ups and downs and good news and bad news.
Donzelli and Elkaïm have taken one of the worst things that could happen to a couple and turned it into an unpredictable, moving, surprising and — once again, not in the gross way — life-affirming movie. Don’t think of “Declaration of War” as a movie about a kid that’s dying; think of it as a celebration of living.