Declaration of War: Cannes Review

Cannes Film Festival
"Declaration of War"
Flawed yet alluring, this autobiographical disease drama should win over many viewers  

The sophomore feature from Gallic writer-director-actress Valerie Donzelli is an engaging though not entirely convincing portrayal of a battle that began when the filmmaker’s infant son was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Filled with a Nouvelle Vague vibe punctuated by musical montages and sudden bursts of sentiment, War has the right weapons to conquer arthouse audiences both at home and abroad, granting the young French auteur further international exposure.

Based on Donzelli’s and co-writer-star and ex-boyfriend Jeremie Elkaim’s own real-life ordeal, the story is autobiographical through and through, giving it a magnitude that would have been tougher to nail down in a purely fictional tale. The reality factor also allows the duo to engage in many flights of fancy, sprinkling their narrative with everything from a Magnolia-style sing-a-long to a rapidly edited romance straight out of Jules and Jim.

Yet by indulging in an array of styles – which were already on ample display in the director’s low-budget debut, The Queen of Hearts – and relying on a greatest hits soundtrack that includes everything from J.S. Bach to Laurie Anderson’s Superman, the drama is diffused by a few too many attempts to be cinematically spontaneous, and perhaps too tellingly cute at certain intervals. 

Despite such snags, there are still several heart-wrenching moments in the tale of young lovebirds Juliette (Donzelli) and Romeo (Elkaim), whose electric encounter at a party is soon followed by the birth of their son, Adam (Cesar Desseix), an adorable little toddler who begins to show signs of an alarming illness. After a few increasingly troubling doctor’s visits – and Donzelli is at her best when revealing the tragic-comic aspects of France’s labyrinthine hospital system – a tumor is detected in Adam’s brain, initiating a long period of fear, confusion and anticipation that no parent would wish upon their worst enemy.

Jumping (and sometimes jump-cutting) chronologically to cover the four-year period during which Adam was subjected to major surgery followed by intensive chemotherapy treatment, Donzelli concentrates less on the raw medical procedures than on how the parents cope – or cannot cope – with the affliction. In that sense, War is not unlike the recent Rabbit Hole, except that here there is still hope the child will survive, although such hope is so exhausting to maintain that it eats away at Juliette and Romeo’s relationship.

In the end, it’s unfortunate that Donzelli and Elkaim, who are appearing in a combined total of five films in Cannes’ various sections this year, do not rely more on their acting chops to bear the brunt of what was clearly a traumatic experience for both of them. This is especially frustrating in the film’s latter reels, as significant aspects of the plot are glossed over via voiceover or the constant use of music.

Technical accomplishments are worlds above Donzelli’s freshman effort, with colorfully crisp imagery by Sebastien Buchmann (Memory Lane) making this battle a pleasure to watch.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Critics’ Week (Opening Film)
Sales: Wild Bunch
Production companies: Rectangle Productions, in association with Wild Bunch 
Cast: Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim, Cesar Desseix, Gabriel Elkaim, Brigitte Sy, Elina Lowensohn, Michele Moretti, Beatrice de Stael, Anne Le Ny
Director: Valerie Donzelli
Screenwriters: Valerie Donzelli, Jeremie Elkaim
Producer: Edouard Weill
Director of photography: Sebastien Buchmann
Production designer: Gaelle Usandivaras
Costume designer: Elisabeth Mehu
Editor: Pauline Gaillard
No rating, 90 minutes