“Declaration of War” Depicts Misfortune Culminating in Unexpected Triumph

Elizabeth Pyjov


Declaration of War” (La guerre est déclarée), France's foreign-language film submission for the Oscars, has the merits of lightness and inventiveness. The director, Valérie Donzelli, freely expresses herself through whichever tool she finds most useful in each particular moment, whether it is comedy in a tragic situation, magical realism, insertion of a song she wrote herself, or a cut to abstract images outside of the scene.


Donzelli does not have regard for the confinement of a specific genre, and the combination of these techniques creates an unexpected auteur film. The variety of effects Donzelli resorts to are intriguing and infuse the film with an original flavor, but they do so at the price of congruity. The film’s progression brings to mind a brightly colored butterfly that flies from one flower to another, at whim, rather than moving in a certain direction. “Declaration of War” has an authenticity to it, but its lack of a harmonious continuity and emotional intensity weakens the overall impression.



The story begins with a young man, Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm), who meets a woman, Juliette (Valérie Donzelli), in a bar, as loud punk music plays in the background. Juliette dumps her current boyfriend on the spot and leaves the joint with her new love interest. The camera briefly shows their date, as they make-out all over Paris. What very quickly follows is the birth of their child, Adam. With the arrival of a baby, their lives become more complicated. When they find out that baby Adam has a malignant brain tumor, their relationship transforms into a battle for the child’s health. Like a real war, it requires cooperation, improvisation and sacrifice. Yet it is not so much Adam that the film centers around, but the struggle of the two main characters to keep their relationship alive and stay in love.


The film is drawn directly from personal experience. Jérémie Elkaïm and Valérie Donzelli, the male and female leads, who co-wrote the script, were a couple for a long time and have two children together. For the past six years, they have been fighting an arduous battle for the health of their oldest child, Gabriel. Gabriel, himself, is present in the first few and the last few minutes of the film, playing the character of Adam when he is older. There is a special ease and chemistry between Elkaim and Donzelli on screen, which is touching, especially when they are with Gabriel, their real son. The film shows the difficulties and discomforts Donzelli and Elkaim themselves must have experienced after years of putting their son's needs above their own.


The struggle for individual happiness in the face of unexpected events is an interesting topic for a film in the 21st century, when each individual is more inclined to feel that he deserves the life that he has planned and chosen to mold for himself. At the beginning of the film, Romeo and Juliette are an ordinary couple, enjoying their happiness with a playful ease. They then become a couple fighting for the life of their son, in a self-sacrifice that is entirely consuming.


Within this story there is potential to show their struggle psychologically and emotionally, which is not fully exploited. Although the film speaks of misfortune and touches on some serious problems, it never looks adversity straight in the eye or gets under its characters’ skin. Whenever the topic is serious, Donzelli attempts to spare the viewer and divert his attention by adding a light, comic or surprising cinematic effect.


As a result, “Declaration of War” is about a misfortune that does not cut deep, and culminates in a triumph that is not as elating as it could have been. It is a film that strives to be memorable, both emotionally and artistically, and has many of the right ingredients, but does not entirely succeed because its tone is never consistent. Its lightness is not joyful, its sadness is not tragic; therefore, its inventiveness is there for its own sake, isolated, without a higher purpose to serve.


The film did not make the final list, announced on January 24th, of the official five foreign film nominations of this year’s Academy Awards. Another movie that was released in 2011, François Ozon's smart, ironic and funny "Trophy Wife” (Potiche) would have been a better French foreign film submission this year. “Declaration of War,” however, was a good attempt, and Donzelli, who has made only two feature films so far, is a young director to keep an eye on.


Author Bio:

 Elizabeth Pyjov is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. Read her blog at http://worldthroughfilm.blogspot.com/

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