Declaration of War may be the most peculiar, most polarising film of the year. A controversial choice for the opening night of the 2012 French Film Festival in Sydney, it divided the audience between those who felt touched and moved, and those who saw it as a monumental act of self-indulgence. As a general rule I’m not inclined to sit on the fence, but there are compelling reasons for both points of view.
The story can be related in a flash: a young couple with the unlikely names of Roméo and Juliette fall in love, get married and have a child. After a brief period their idyllic romance is upset when they find their infant son has a brain tumour that requires surgery and constant treatment. The bulk of the film shows how they deal with this protracted crisis and its aftermath.
What makes this movie unique is that it closely follows the real life events that befell Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm, who play the two lead roles. The duo wrote the script together, and Donzelli directed.
Although the film is conceived as if it were a fictional narrative, it often feels as if we are watching a form of cinema verité that doesn’t want to admit its documentary status. One might argue it is tremendously brave of the filmmakers to restage the traumatic events that threw their lives into turmoil and eventually ended their marriage, but it is also an exercise in emotional blackmail. We don’t have any choice but to feel sorry for Roméo and Juliette – they are constantly projecting their pain and demanding our sympathy. Only a monster would fail to empathise with their predicament, which is every parent’s worst nightmare.
This is precisely the problem with Declaration of War: it allows only one response and implicitly condemns us if we do not conform. We are not simply casting judgement on a movie, but on the filmmakers’ lives.
Many viewers find nothing wrong with this approach. The film was a huge hit in France, and in every country it will collect passionate admirers who feel that Roméo and Juliette’s determination to defeat their son’s illness is courageous and inspirational.
Although locked into an accurate recreation of actual events, Donzelli and Elkaïm try to emphasise the positive aspects of their struggle. Their “declaration of war” is a refusal to give up hope, even when the odds seem overwhelming. The film is not conceived as a tear-jerker but as a celebration of the human spirit. There is one surprisingly funny sequence when they await the result of a nine hour operation, tossing off a list of potential disabilties.
To help convey an upbeat message, Donzelli and Elkaïm employ a loud, disjointed soundtrack that makes the film into an episodic musical. Once again opinions were equally divided between those who thought this was brilliantly innovative, and those who felt it was plain silly. By using music as a key to the emotional states of the characters, it often tended to reduce those emotions to the debased level of pop songs.
Even the best pop songs take complex emotions and turn them into neat, easily consumable packages. To use these formulas as a way of conveying the intensity of a life-and-death battle with a brain tumour is to make the entire process seem superficial. It is as if Roméo and Juliette become caught up in their performance as grieving parents, and forget the actuality. This may be an inevitable result of playing the role of oneself – a paradoxical task for any actor. It is like acting in front the mirror.
Declaration of War, France, rated M, 100 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 02, 2012