Featuring: Valérie Donzelli, Jérémie Elkaïm, Brigitte Sy, Michèle Moretti, Béatrice De Staël, Anne Le Ny, Frédéric Pierrot
Director: Valérie Donzelli
Australian release date: 31 May, 2012
Review 1: rolanstein
Review 2: Karen
Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) and Juliette (Valérie Donzelli) are a hip young Parisian couple whose care-free and spontaneous world is smacked off its axis when their toddler son, Adam, is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive brain cancer. With a background media announcement of the US invasion of Iraq providing a chronological marker, Romeo and Juliette find themselves on a battlefield of their own, engaged in an epic war against their son’s disease, an unpredictable and enigmatic enemy threatening everything they cherish.
Review 1 (rolanstein)
I try to start with a blank slate as a reviewer, preferring to know as little as possible about the movie I am to assess. Of course, this is an ideal that is usually compromised by viewing trailers or coming across various sources of information online in the course of routine web browsing.
In this instance, I knew in advance that Declaration Of War was an autobiographical piece, that the filmmakers/lead actors were the parents of a child who had been struck down with cancer. That meant, I assumed, that this was to be an authentic depiction of their ordeal and that of their son.
Not easy to review, then. Parts of the film that didn’t ring true to me were beyond questioning, weren’t they? Who am I to pick fault with dialogue or character behaviour directly informed by the real-life experience of the filmmakers? On the face of it, the same might be said of any film, but this is different. Only the parents of a child afflicted by cancer can truly know what it takes to negotiate a path through this dark territory.
This bothered me. I felt tethered. I found myself breaking my blank slate rule, poring over an interview with Valérie Donzelli – and discovered that I was fretting over nothing.
Donzelli: The film is autobiographical insofar as Jeremie and I have had a child who fell gravely ill. The facts are very close to what we went through, but the film isn’t our story.
OK. Unshackled! Review proper starts here.
I should acknowledge that I wasn’t looking forward to this movie. Where’s the appeal of a film about a little kid with cancer? If it’s done well, it will be gruelling. If not, it will be drowning in sentiment (the dire Australian child cancer flick Matching Jack comes to mind). No win, either way.
Well, I’m pleased to report that Declaration Of War is about the parents, not the child. And it’s determinedly unsentimental (sometimes too determinedly).
Rather than focus on the tragic implications of Adam’s diagnosis, Romeo and Juliette refuse to be cowered by the disease and the havoc it wreaks on their lifestyles and routines. When the inevitable “why us?” question is vocalised by Romeo, Juliette replies: “Because we can overcome this.”
This conviction informs their battle plan and shines a light through the darkness and confusion of the daunting way ahead. Not least of the trials they face is the hospital milieu itself: the closed inner sanctum of the surgeons; the confronting appointments with medical specialists who yield vital information about Adam’s condition only in response to the parents’ questions, volunteering nothing of their own accord; conflicting directions from ward staff. Anyone with experience of cancer treatment and the bewildering shunting around from one venue and specialist to another will readily identify with Romeo and Juliette’s plight.
The unmistakable sense of authenticity is enhanced by the fact that much of the film was shot on location in the same hospital the filmmakers had attended when their own child was under treatment, with the cast members including hospital staff performing their real-life roles.
A technical aside:
The hospital scenes were shot using a Canon stills camera(!), utilising well-lit areas to minimise extra lighting requirements.
Romeo and Juliette’s ammunition in their war against the cancer is positivity, which mostly comes across as courageous and credible, if a little perverse at times. To wit, an exchange in which they seek to trivialise the disease by trumping each other’s blackly comic future scenarios for Adam:
“He could have cancer and be a dwarf.”
“He could have cancer, be a dwarf and be black.”
“He could have cancer, be a dwarf, black and Jewish.”
“He could have cancer, be a dwarf, black, Jewish and gay.”
And so on. Not an entirely original routine, but acceptable enough in the circumstances.
Less so is Romeo’s comedic exaggerated creeping through the hospital corridors as he leads Juliette and Adam out of the hospital in contravention of regulations for an afternoon at the seaside. The seaside part is fine; the escape by cartoonish stealth from the hospital seems forced, inappropriate, and a bit silly.
Soon after, comes the high point of the movie, which more than compensates for this lapse. Adam survives a dangerous operation to remove the tumour, but the surgeon discovers that it has infiltrated the brain stem. Romeo and Juliet conceal the worsening prognosis from their parents, other relatives and friends who are waiting outside the hospital with champagne in anticipation of a good surgical result. Celebrations erupt as the couple emerges to announce that the surgery has been successful. Very affecting stuff.
In a opening scene of the movie, we see a healthy older Adam with Juliet, and know therefore that a happy ending awaits. Rather than detract from the suspense, this foreknowledge focuses attention on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’, the parents’ experience of the cancer war, rather than its outcome.
Nevertheless, from the viewer’s point of view, it comes as a relief as the film approaches its end when there is a time shift to an 8-year-old Adam (played by Donzelli and Elkaïmon’s son, Gabriel) at the beach with his parents. The family has endured endless battles, but they have won the war. The victory comes at a personal cost, however, as we learn just prior to the credit roll.
For all its merits in very realistically depicting a world that most parents are spared through sheer good fortune, there are aspects to the film that don’t work terribly well. The use of voiceovers as an exposition device and narrative prop is distracting and confusing at times, especially since the voices issue from multiple speakers of both genders that are never identified. Further, the voiceovers were often extraneous, merely describing unnecessarily what was going on on screen.
Then there are the names of the lead characters, Romeo and Juliet. Bit naff, what? And Adam for the kid – well, I baulk at these kinds of obvious mythical references. But it ain’t a war crime I’m bitching about here, just a fairly minor irritation.
Of greater concern, I found myself wondering about the point of the film. I mean, to be flippant for a moment, root canal surgery is a profoundly disturbing and challenging experience, too. It’s a big thing for many of us, a personal human drama to be sure (albeit mercifully short and transient relatively speaking), but does this in itself justify fictionalised filmic coverage?
Wrong way, go back!
I realised shortly into the credit roll that Declaration of War is above all a tribute! This is its point. It is a tribute to the hospital staff, the surgeons, the friends and family who supported the couple through their ordeal, the child whose spirit and courage helped to pull him through. It is a tribute that applies to one case of child cancer, and to all cases. And perhaps most of all, the movie is Donzelli’s and Elkaïm’s tribute to each other. In this sense it is, indeed, a love story.
All in all, not a great film, but a worthy one remarkable for the autobiographical input of the filmmakers and the life-affirming spirit and sense of authenticity they bring to the work.
Review 2 (Karen)
The subject matter of Declaration of War – the experience of a couple when their son is diagnosed with a serious illness – would not normally have me clamouring to get to the cinema. But I was curious about how “the French” – so often preoccupied with style, beauty, and marital and extra-marital relationships – would deal with a more serious matter. And in this case “the French” are in fact the couple who in real life went through the trauma of having their son diagnosed with a brain tumour. Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm wrote the film, she directs, and they play the lead roles, the improbably and irrelevantly named Romeo and Juliette. I was hopeful that the filmmakers’ personal experience would deliver deep insights in a tender, moving tale.
There are no plot surprises, so it’s not a spoiler to say that the kid lives and seems pretty well. (Donzelli and Elkaïm’s son plays the child, Adam, in the opening and closing scenes.) I’m glad for him – but the film is not about him. It’s all about the parents: how they met, their adorable courtship, their immortal love…
Romeo and Juliette have a baby in double quick time, and struggle from day one. Little Adam is fretful, both parents are exhausted. Nevertheless this was the opportunity for the filmmakers to establish the depth and beauty of the mother/child bond, and it just didn’t happen. Donzelli, although beautiful (she looks like a young Julianne Moore), has an immobile face, and while this blankness suits the later scenes where she is coping with an onslaught of bad news, it’s curiously off-putting early.
Now, I don’t want to be mean to someone whose child had a brain tumour and who went through the whole testing, diagnosis, surgery, radiation therapy, testing, testing, testing grind with him. But this is a film about that experience, and frankly I reckon it’s a turkey.
Just for starters the tone is all over the place. There are madcap sequences inserted into what is essentially a blow by blow narrative of the course of Adam’s treatment. Comic urgency about the preparations for a last-minute train journey to Marseille are ridiculous (what is the point of the babysitter with the funny walk?), and what are we meant to make of the couple’s exaggerated mime-sneak out of the hospital to enjoy a bit of freezing on-shore wind?
Nearly every man-Jacques of the couple’s extended family overreacts wildly to the various diagnoses: Romeo howls in the street, falls to his knees, and smashes his phone, while Juliette goes on a surreal running flight along deserted hospital corridors before collapsing to the floor, from where she is eventually picked up by an impassive bulky orderly and delivered wordlessly back to the waiting room. I guess it’s all part of the job in a paediatric oncology hospital.
Romeo and Juliette cleave together, and the more successful scenes show them sharing their fears and questions. A funny dialogue about what Adam’s future might hold after his surgery is politically incorrect and feels real, and a late scene where Romeo finally asks, “Why did this happen to us?” also rings true. But a duet where the couple sing of their love is incredibly naff. I would quote some lyrics but my eyes were bulging in amazement and I lost focus on the subtitles.
If you thought Parisians were sophisticated, cultured and enviable for any reason whatsoever, this song, as well as the ugly urban settings, dingy overcrowded hospitals and a couple of daggy parties will prove otherwise.
“Faction” offers no real narrative arc, no climax, no resolution. The film is hastily wrapped up with a voiceover telling us the outcome, and offering a clichéd uplifting ending, with a healthy Adam frolicking on the beach with his parents. They all clinch and turn to the light; pull focus; fade to white. Sheesh.
Finally, the couple’s relentless smoking throughout the film must be mentioned. Hell, they can even smoke on a moving motorcycle. There’s no medical knowledge to be gained from this film, no clue as to why the child developed an aggressive brain tumour, and I don’t suggest that they gave their kid cancer. But seriously, guys … allo?
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