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The gorgeously scruffy Juliette (director/co-writer Valérie Donzelli) and Roméo (co-writer Jérémie Elkaïm)—yes, the improbability is noted—move from dive-bar love-at-first-sight to proud parents of a newborn boy in the first few minutes of Declaration of War. Then their 18-month-old son, Adam, is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Shot in the actual hospital where Donzelli and Elkaïm’s actual son was treated for cancer, Declaration of War turns autobiography into thrilling expressionist art.
In other words, it’s a “true story” that steers clear of aesthetic realism, up to and including a love-ballad interlude that splits the difference between Jacques Demy and a late-’80s music video. Always privileging feeling over story, Donzelli answers key narrative questions via anonymous, clinical voiceover and condenses the passing of huge swaths of time into montage. This then frees her up to explore specific moments in the couple’s struggle to cope with their son’s sickness in microscopic detail, heightening Juliette and Roméo’s moment-by-moment reactions to each ensuing obstacle.
Adam’s diagnosis coincides with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a fact Donzelli mentions outright once but mercifully doesn’t strain to parallel—even as Roméo and Juliette declare mission accomplished to friends and family after Adam’s tumorectomy, while well aware that the fight is just beginning. Although inherently narcissistic, Declaration of War is more generally about the emotional chaos of a prolonged struggle against an unfathomable threat. In classic wartime psychology, the reckless young couple seeks refuge from their trauma in self-destruction—chain-smoking just outside the hospital walls, partying until dawn. With baby Adam’s fate a foregone conclusion (Donzelli and Elkaïm’s real-life son plays “himself” in the first scene, clueing the audience in to the fact that both he and his fictional counterpart survive), the film is most successful as an exploration of the incomprehensibility of death in the minds of the living.