Photo: Sundance Selects"Declaration of War" — France's selection for an Academy Award this year — opens with a scruffily handsome young man who bares a passing resemblance to James Franco locking eyes with a pretty lass from across the room. He throws a peanut towards her and she catches it in her mouth. They meet, kiss, and realize with disbelief that they are named Romeo (Jeremie Elkaim) and Juliette (Valerie Donzelli). "Are we doomed to a terrible fate," she muses.
They are, we learn, but it has nothing to do with feuding families and feigned suicides. In a montage sequence that has all the energy and invention of "Jules and Jim"-era Truffaut, they date, fall in love, move in together and have a baby, Adam. From the beginning, something seemed off about the tyke; he constantly cried and was plagued with Krakatoa —like bouts of vomiting. Initially, doctors brushed it off as typical toddler maladies, but it turned out to be something far, far worse: Adam has brain cancer.
Since we know from the movie's first shot that the child survives his affliction, "Declaration of War" is really more about the emotional lives of the parents during this long grueling ordeal. The experiences of the movie's characters, closely parallels that of its stars, Elkaim and Donzelli, who also collaborated in writing the script. Donzelli directed. On paper, it sounds like a recipe for the worst kind of movie-of-the-week dreck slathered with the narcissistic self-pity. Sure, the film might be a bit narcissistic, but it's the sort of narcissism the French, mysteriously, seem to be able to carry off. Contrary to all reasonable expectations, the movie works.
The reason it works is largely because Donzelli manages a peculiarly buoyant tone that keeps the flick from turning into a sobfest. Donzelli wisely emphasizes emotion over narrative logic. A scene set to Vivaldi where Romeo and Juliette relay the Adam's diagnosis to their extended family takes about ten minutes while five years of treatment is condensed to a voice-over and a brief montage. Donzelli also uses just about every trick in the book to keep the movie moving, from jump cuts, to the aforementioned voiceover to a perplexing scene where they break into song. But the thing that really pulls the movie along is the obvious tenderness that she and Elkaim have for one another. Their sense of humor and genuine love for each other becomes infectious. You can't help but root for them as they marshal everything they have to overcome a trial they didn't think they could surmount.
See the trailer for 'Declaration of War':