Movie review: “Declaration of War (La Guerre est Déclarée)”

Movies about parents struggling to deal with a gravely ill child, who faces a real likelihood of dying, are not meant to be magical, or uplifting, or even comically adroit.

But this movie by actor/director Valérie Donzelli (Juliette), and also starring Jérémie Elkaïm (Roméo Benaïm), with whom she has a child, is all that and more, while still managing to stay firmly rooted in the grim reality of fighting tooth and nail for the life of your child.

The fact that it manages to pull off this sort of storytelling balancing act is testament to a cleverly constructed script, penned by both actors who lived through a version of the events described in the film with their own child, that isn’t afraid to throw cliche to the wind in favour of unexpected elements like whimsy and song.

Juliette and Romeo fall in love (image via movies.zap2it.com)

 

They are the sort of elements that never surface in a disease of the week movie for fear of trivialising the subject matter. But they are never in danger of doing that in this wholly original French movie.

Indeed, they form the bedrock of the movie from the word go when a bored Juliette catches Romeo’s eye across a crowded, smoke-filled dance club and it’s love at first. Awkward jokes about the Shakespearian nature of their names, and the fact that they are likely doomed to desperately sad fates follow, as does a romantic colourful montage of the happy couple spending every waking moment together that culminates in the birth of their beautiful son Adam.

After they clear the normal challenges faced by most new parents, a mountain of parenting books and sleep-deprived nights behind them, Romeo, who provides perfectly timed and never intrusive narration, fatefully remarks that only good things wait them.

Naturally that is just tempting fate, and after becoming troubled by developmental delays in their son, and his inability to keep milk down, they meet with a sharp-eyed no-nonsense pediatrician, Dr Prat (Béatrice De Staël) who notices he has a facial symmetry which leads to the diagnosis of a brain tumour in their infant son.

Romeo, Juliette and Adam (image via denersteinunleashed.blogspot.com)

This is where the film comes into its own. Not flinching for one moment from the fearsome reality of what they’re facing, which is let’s face it every parent’s worst nightmare writ large, they shy away from the usual mechanics of these sorts of movies to show that life does go on even as you battle to hold death at bay.

In the midst of ceaseless trips to doctors, and to the hospital, which becomes their home after financial difficulties brought on by Adam’s illness necessitate the sale of their apartment, there are magical moments that raise this movie into the realm of truly beautiful cinema.

For instance, Romeo’s mad dash from Paris to Marseille, where Juliette has taken Romeo to see a neurologist (for reasons that become clear in the movie) is told via  song where the two lovers sing to each other about the qualiti

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