“If only it had been polished and worked out a bit, and maybe shortened by about five or ten minutes, then this could have been a significantly neater and more connective movie.”
by Ken B.
Declaration of War, which was France’s entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars in 2012, is a movie you might just say you “appreciated” when asked about it. You don’t feel like saying “I liked it”, or “I was entertained”, because you’re not sure if that’s entirely true. Instead, if you’re asked what you thought of the film by another one of the four people in the world that saw it, you may say something like “I appreciated what it was doing”. And maybe that’s the right thing to say, because there is much to appreciate. The movie is somewhat autobiographical, based on the experiences of co-writers and leads Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm (as well as directed by Donzelli herself). It goes on too long while nearly reeking of uncomfortable tonal inconsistency at times from work behind the camera and on the page, but the reasons that Declaration of War were made are admirable, and it’s perfectly watchable. And you… appreciate it.
Donzelli and Elkaïm play two characters named – get this – Roméo and Juliette. And Roméo and Juliette – get this – fall in love. And when they fall in love – get this – something bad happens. And dropping the snark for a second, it’s a really bad thing, actually: their infant son Adam (César Desseix as an eighteen month old) develops a brain tumor. It’s operable, and they head to a hospital in Paris where a top surgeon, Dr. Sainte-Rose (Frédéric Pierrot) will perform the procedure to have it removed. The ordeal is rough, and it tests their own relationship, and the strength of the ties with their family and friends, as their son’s unforeseen illness steadily eats away at the plans they conceived, and the path of the future they fantasized.
The intent of the movie is clearly heartfelt. Donzelli and Elkaïm have a young child in real life that went through a similar ordeal (Gabriel, their son, plays the eight-year-old Adam – and no, saying that isn’t a spoiler, as he appears in the first scene before the film flashes back to Roméo and Juliette’s meeting), so this is obviously a project with a strong emotional meaning. But Declaration of War often shifts around in its somewhat elongated 100 minute runtime, where well made sequences, like the one where everyone comes together following Adam’s initial diagnosis, are proceeded by something that looks like it came out of a bad student film, where Juliette, stressed out by the ordeal, runs through the hallways of the hospital with a shaky handheld camera following her (I’m talking like full-on San Andreas-vision here), backed with grating electro-tones on the soundtrack. It’s needless – all it does is briefly but unquestionably grind the entire film to a screeching halt in a crucial point in the plot where pacing lucidity is a near requirement.
What the film lacks in tonal and visual steadiness, however, it makes up for in its good acting. Donzelli and Elkaïm lead a nice ensemble, who all turn in convincing showings, which do well in making the conflicts of the characters that much more personal to us, coming closer to investing the audience in the status of Roméo and Juliette’s relationship on top of Adam’s tumor and subsequent tumultuous recovery process. It keeps the movie going, moving at least, in all but its worst moments, on a rudimentarily compelling level. It’s a testament to the actors that even when the script is mid-level and its execution is gimmicky and uninteresting, the performances live on.
It’s hard to actively dislike Declaration of War, as it feels like if you do, it’s similar to having someone talk about a particularly difficult or trying time in their life, and you responding to the story with a quiet “Oh, OK.” And truth be told, there is a good bit within to be liked and praised. If only it had been polished and worked out a bit, and maybe shortened by about five or ten minutes, then this could have been a significantly neater and more connective movie. As it is, it’s not awful, but it’s a little too rough, maybe too smiley and upbeat from artifice at times rather than out of the genuine flow of the story and events (just have a look at that poster, which captures what I’m talking about in a surprisingly accurate way). As I said in the lead of this review, there are many cases in art where appreciation is different from outright enjoyment, and Declaration of War ends up proving that a bit more than it probably wanted to.