Sunday, February 12, 2012

Declaration of War (2012)

Declaration of War
Dir. Valérie Donzelli

4 out of 5

Star-crossed lovers Roméo (Jérémie Elkaim) and Juilette (Valérie Donzelli) are Parisian bohemians who stumble into parenthood in
Declaration of War, an absorbing and bittersweet familial drama. Their courtship montage ends with a date at an erotic art show, where they stare at each other quizzically in front of a giant photo of a woman's nether regions. Cut to the arrival of their son, little Alex, who brings the couple a mixture of exhilaration and exhaustion. Before long, though, Alex begins to exhibit the mildly worrisome behavior of a newborn - he cries all day, is slow to develop motor skills, and "tilts his head to the side," a habit his standoffish father rashly links to mental disability. Donzelli and Elkaim dutifully shuttle the tyke to the pediatrician's office, where the doctor dispenses calm reassurances to the concerns she has doubtlessly heard from hundreds of freaked-out parents. But these hiccups prove to be the first signs of more serious health problems for Alex, and his parents must fight to save his childhood, even if it means sacrificing their couplehood.

The film - released to much acclaim last year in its native France - is written and directed by Donzelli and is based on her own experience as the mother of a child diagnosed with a brain tumor. She creates an affecting portrait of a parent's greatest crisis without restoring to hysteria or mawkishness. The story is simply too personal for that. About sixty percent of the movie takes place in various doctor's offices and hospitals, where Donzelli and Elkaim give tremendous performances, worrying and hoping and bickering and comforting each other in circumstances that tax their dignity and severely limit their privacy. They are rubbed so raw that their brief moments of escape only accelerate the erosion of their relationship. One romantically-charged party scene ends with Donzelli and Elkaim boldly making out with other guests before dejectedly returning to their shared apartment.

There's a sense that Donzelli might be making too much of the collapse of a partnership that has trouble sustaining interest past the infatuation phase. Elkaim is particularly confusing, charming one minute and sullen the next. His moodiness is a mystery, save for a small bank scene hinting at his failure to secure his family's financial stability. But the film's center is rock-solid, and Donzelli wisely focuses on the transformative courage and remarkable determination that good, caring parents will do anything to summon when their child's life is in jeopardy. Maybe love does conquer all, but
Declaration of War makes the case that it can only handle one thing at a time.

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