'Declaration of War'

The ultimate horror scenario of every parent, an offspring's diagnosis with a potentially fatal tumor, is tackled with effective filmmaking brio.

The ultimate horror scenario of every parent, an offspring’s diagnosis with a potentially fatal tumor, is tackled with effective filmmaking brio in “Declaration of War.” Thesps Valerie Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim star in and penned this largely autobiographical tale together, with Donzelli again taking on helming duties after she earlier directed the duo in “Queen of Hearts.” Though it doesn’t underplay the seriousness of the toddler’s condition, this small-scale pic is full of life and easy to relate to, which bodes well for its late-August local bow, and could also spell some offshore action.

Elkaim and Donzelli play Romeo and Juliette, two insouciant French hipsters who, after having shared an initial chuckle over their names during their first meeting — “We’re in for a terrible destiny,” one of them remarks — quickly move in together and have a child.

The couple’s storybook romance, effectively conveyed in a corny montage sequence accompanied by flutes on the soundtrack, is shattered when a visit to the pediatrician with their incessantly crying infant, Adam (Cesar Desseix), results in more tests that finally deliver a terrible verdict: Adam has a brain tumor.

Their life transforms itself into one long schlep through hospital corridors, used by Donzelli as an effective visual metaphor for the apparently endless tunnel the family finds itself in, not knowing what they’ll find at the end, or whether they’ll ever find a way out.

What sets “War” apart from other countless disease-of-the-week movies is that it tells its heartfelt story in a lively and energetic style. Donzelli and Elkaim, who made the film on a small budget and with a tiny crew, not only follow in the free-spirited footsteps of New Wavers such as Truffaut (who, in “Jules and Jim,” made a tragic menage a trois feel like a lighthearted romp) but also manage to cram in many small, authentic-feeling details. The lovers escape into routine-defining habits such as smoking and eating, while humor is used as another safety valve, such as in increasingly absurd bedtime conversation in which the two confess their worst fears.

Where the screenplay slips up is in its occasional reliance on three omniscient narrators (another, rather mannered, nod to the New Wave). A late revelation delivered in v.o. about the true effects of the couple’s own endless hospital odyssey on their relationship is, somewhat shockingly, delivered almost as an afterthought.

Both thesps, essentially playing variations on themselves, are fine. Child acting is also impeccable, while in the supporting cast, Bastien Bouillon, as an easygoing friend of Romeo’s, and Brigitte Sy, as Romeo’s lesbian hippie mother, deserve mention. Some healthcare professionals also play themselves and blend in perfectly.

Traditional score is replaced by existing tracks, with choices ranging from conventional Vivaldi to more offbeat chansons. A couple of sung musical interludes, which turned up the goofy Gallic charm in “Queen of Hearts,” serve a more serious purpose here, though their effectiveness is almost undermined by a Hallmark-meets-popvid aesthetic of floating heads and moving lights.

D.p. Sebastien Buchmann’s lensing, done with a feather-light Canon, adds to the general sense of vigor but can’t quite handle the artificial hospital lighting, which turns even the healthy characters’ complexion a sickly yellow. The contrasting closing scene, in slow-motion, was shot on pristine 35mm rather than rough-and-tumble video.

On the print caught, pic’s French-language title was translated as “War Is Declared,” though English-language marketing materials refer to the film as “Declaration of War.”

Declaration of War

France

Production

A Wild Bunch Distribution release of a Rectangle Prods. presentation and production, in association with Wild Bunch. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Edouard Weil. Directed by Valerie Donzelli. Screenplay, Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim.

Crew

Camera (color, HD/35mm-to-35mm, widescreen), Sebastien Buchmann; editor, Pauline Gaillard; production designer, Gaelle Usandivaras; costume designer, Elisabeth Mehu; sound (Dolby Digital), Andre Rigaut; line producer, Serge Catoire; assistant director, Marie Weinberger. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week), May 13, 2011. Running time: 100 MIN.

With

Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim, Cesar Desseix, Gabriel Elkaim, Brigitte Sy, Elina Lowensohn, Michelle Moretti, Philippe Laudenbach, Bastien Bouillon. Narrators: Philippe Barrassat, Pauline Gaillard, Valentine Catzeflis.

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