War of the roses

7 Min Read

By Myriam Ghattas

“La Guerre est Déclarée” (Declaration of War, 2011) is the story of a young couple: Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) and Juliette (Valérie Donzelli) find out that their son Adam (César Desseix) — just one-and-a-half years old — has been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Within a moment that must have lasted emotional light-years, the young parents reach the only decision that counts: War is declared.

From the moment of its entry into the public sphere, Valérie (“La Reine Des Pommes”) Donzelli’s second feature film, co-written with her creative partner and ex-companion Elkaïm (“Polisse”), has been warmly welcomed and validated by many a festival. It received raving reviews across the board. Most notably, it opened the Semaine de la Critique of the Cannes Film Festival and garnered the Grand Prix Asturias at this year’s Gijon International Film Festival. In September, it was announced that the film will be France’s official submission for Best Foreign Film in the 2012 Academy Awards.

Screened at last week’s Panorama of the European Film, “La Guerre est Déclarée” begins like all love stories, with a match made in heaven. Romeo and Juliette find one another at a party and, as fate will have it, become inseparable. They move into a new apartment, have a baby and score a magical pediatrician, Dr. Prat (Béatrice de Staël) who is able to avert baby’s early normal crises.

And they lived happily ever after — not. The tune warps as Romeo and Juliette begin to notice a marked delay in Adam’s development when compared to children his age. Dr. Prat loses her magic at this point as she fails to waive off the alarming signs quite as readily as she had done in the past. Her role in the young couple’s life comes to an end, to be replaced by increasingly sophisticated medical personnel, medical facilities along with a complex surgery and treatments.

Romeo and Juliette brace themselves as well as they know how.

It seems almost superfluous to mention Donzelli and Elkaïm’s performances, let alone to say that they are strikingly genuine, because in this case, they are hardly performances at all. The acting couple, in what can only be construed as an incredibly generous gesture, is in fact reenacting the painful journey from their very own experience battling their son’s cancer. They use the medium of film to bring to their audience an intimate story, revisiting many a moment that would have been much more easily laid to rest.

Donzelli communicates both the length and tediousness of the battle to save Adam’s life at a refreshingly variable rhythm that will neither leave the spectator indifferent nor bored. Our hearts race with the protagonists as they wait to hear back about results, we take a moment to breathe with them when the need for it is incumbent, or shed some tears when it is all too much to take. The filmmaker never dwells for too long on any one moment but weaves them together into a delicately evolving balance.

“La Guerre est Declarée” is not without faults. There are moments in the film when the drama turns into melodrama or the score used is either generic or over the top, with the unfortunate result of jarring the spectator momentarily away from the narrative. An instance of such imbalance occurs during a particularly sensitive scene that would have required handling with great subtlety and care. Instead, Donzelli opts to underscore an already heavy-handed performance with Vivaldi’s “Winter” from the “Four Seasons” with a disastrously counter-productive effect.

Or again, there are scenes that resonate with Juliette’s voice over, in a Truffaut-esque ill-matched attempt, describing redundantly the actions unraveling on the screen.

Such moments are thankfully few and far between. If anything, they can be attributed to the spontaneity and freedom with which Donzelli exercises her filmmaking and which are essentially at the core of the success of her film. The remainder of the movie is a powerhouse of emotions as the battle to keep Adam alive increases overtime while Romeo and Juliette struggle to retain their sanity.

Donzelli adds another dimension to “La Guerre est Déclarée” with some musical sequences, at times with enthralling effect. In a beautiful montage intercutting scenes of the two actors in different cities, Romeo and Juliette take turns singing the verses of an original song by Benjamin Biolay called “Ton Grain de Beauté,” a love tune that bridges the physical distance between them with a sustained and attuned emotional closeness. In this, we sense an overt and tasteful homage to French filmmaker Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”).

The score of the film, made up of a selection of classical tracks and modern songs, is vibrant and addictive, supporting the narrative very nicely.

A touching and brilliantly executed aspect of “La Guerre est Declarée” is that Donzelli and Elkaïm infuse their script with a fair share of humor while dealing with a morbid subject without ever becoming irreverent or exploitative. In their delivery, the lines feel natural to the actors and will provide the spectator with a few guilt-free moments of laughter.

Sébastien Buchmann signs a contemporary cinematography, adopting a digital approach with mastery and elegance. The image is beautiful, alternating the coolness of the hospital scenes with the warmth of colors in the outside world, arming the spectator with yet another tool to connect with the experiences of the protagonists.

“La Guerre est Declarée” is a film that strongly recalls French auteur cinema in its raw form. It flows from its spirited creators with lightness and ease. It is not afraid to experiment with its form or to borrow from the masters of cinema and music. It is life-affirming and invigorating, the kind of story that remains in your heart for no quantifiable reason. One of cinema’s magical moments to be sure.

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