The passionate Declaration of War may be the least mawkish film about a sick child ever made. A young French duo, Valerie Donzelli (who directs) and Jeremie Elkaim (who co-wrote the screenplay with her) reenact, with some changes, their fight to keep their toddler son alive through a bout with a dangerous brain cancer nearly a decade ago. Not a documentary, nor quite fiction, the movie is processed autobiography in much the same way Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows was but with the added mind-twister that the real couple, now no longer romantically involved, play themselves.
They’ve changed their own names, to Juliette and Romeo, which might seem ridiculous if the on-screen couple didn’t immediately have a good laugh at the coincidence. They connect at a crowded party and within a few quick cuts Donzelli (The Queen of Hearts) has them carting a newborn, baby Adam, around Paris. Problems develop not long after their son’s first birthday, he vomits violently, doesn’t walk and as Romeo puts it “tilts his head like a retard.” Perhaps the subtitled translation is more politically incorrect than the original French, but this declaration, said more with anger than fear, is representative of the movie’s frankness. The night before Adam undergoes a nine-hour surgery to remove his brain tumor, the couple shares their fears for the outcome, tossing around potential disabilities like jugglers with balls — blindness, deafness, muteness — and then escalate to impossible outcomes, including dwarfism and fascism. Punchy with worry, they giggle, able, even in the darkness, to find laughter.
Adam’s diagnosis coincides with the beginning of the conflict in Iraq, so the title has a double meaning, although the couple never declares the kind of war on disease that say, Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte’s characters did in Lorenzo’s Oil. Juliette and Romeo aren’t seeking out a radical cure for their sick child; they are content with traditional, albeit the best, medical care for their son. And they make a pact: No Internet, no useless speculations, no fretting about what they don’t know. Their lowkey surgeon warns them not to “count eggs in the hen’s ass” and they take it to heart. Getting Adam well will have to be a marathon, one of several narrators tells us, and they train for it accordingly, going for long runs together when they aren’t smoking, drinking whiskey or dancing to loud music.
Did I mention they’re French? An American couple in a movie like this might smoke one cigarette, to emphasize how stressed they are, but then do the proper thing and toss the rest of the pack. Juliette and Romeo just keep smoking, without remarking on the connection between cancer and cigarettes. They go to parties where adults engage in a game called Open Kiss, a version of Spin the Bottle sans bottle. They’re fun, flighty bohemians, brought down to earth by Adam’s illness, but refusing to be buried by it.
Production notes are generally bogus documents full of hyperbole from auteurs and actors (“I’ve never had such an amazingly generous director,” said Actress X,Y or Z”) but Donzelli’s (The Queen of Hearts) notes were worth reading for this line: “Cinema is like a game we play in order to make something.” The film looks professional — impressively so, given that most of it was shot using the video settings on a small still camera, tripods and natural light — but it has a homemade feeling, a playful patchwork quilt of images and music, a visual memoir. Juliette and Romeo even break into a song about being undone by their love for each other, with lyrics that include something about their hips being derailed (something may be lost in translation). Does their warbling work because they’re gorgeous in that look-amazing-in-skinny-jean kind of way? (Elkaim looks like James Franco, but better. Donzelli is a softer version of Keira Knightley.) Their beauty doesn’t hurt, certainly, but what makes this all not just bearable, but moving, is their emotional sincerity. Having lived through this in real life informed the performances, but onscreen Juliette and Romeo never seem like people reliving an experience. Adam’s illness unfolds as a fresh horror before them, and us.
Again though, the movie is not sentimental. There are moments of running down hospital corridors and a demand for a diagnosis that harkens back to Shirley MacLaine barking for medicine for Debra Winger, but this is not Terms of Endearment. Other than a few scenes of baby Adam being wheeled away in one of the hospital’s tall-sided cribs that look right out of a tragic orphanage, Declaration of War is not a weepie. It never yanks obnoxiously at the heartstrings. Because the movie opens with Juliette and a boy of about eight walking through a hospital we’re fairly sure Adam is not going to die as a toddler (a further reassurance; at 8, Adam is played by Donzelli and Elkaim’s son, Gabriel). Declaration of War is about being under siege from illness, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. This modern-day Juliette and Romeo find their own tragedy, but are not poisoned by it.