Declaration of War (Sundance Selects, NR)

film declaration smIf you can’t feel some kind of empathy for the central characters, there’s not much left to the film except a guilt trip for not feeling the way you should.

film declaration lg

It seems almost churlish to fail to sympathize with a story about the parents of a seriously ill child, but director Valérie Donzelli appears to be working overtime to make the beleaguered parents in Declaration of War unlikeable. Since this film is as close as you can get to a two-hander without actually being one (the other characters, including the sick child himself, are relegated to mere backdrop), if you can’t feel some kind of empathy for the central characters, there’s not much left to the film except a guilt trip for not feeling the way you should.

Declaration of War has the ingredients for a good small film, a character study of two young adults who find themselves in perhaps the worst situation any parent can experience. As the film is based on the real-life experiences of Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm, who together co-wrote the script and play the leading characters, you might expect some real insight into the dilemmas faced by these characters. Instead, Donzelli tries to make her film some kind of universal statement about life, an ambition cued from the start by the ponderous third-person narration and the improbable character names (Donzelli is Juliétte, Elkaïm is Rómeo, and their son is Adam).

Rómeo and Juliétte are really not characters so much as stand-ins for everyparents of the stunningly attractive Gallic variety, and the film’s oddly disjunctive presentation of their story doesn’t let us learn much about them, let alone care about them. Add in a regular intrusion of abstract visuals (apparently representing the characters’ physical or mental functions) and jarring music-fueled montages, and you may quickly find yourself losing patience with the this film. I know I did.

The film’s central idea, clearly expressed in the title, is that when these beautiful young hipsters (actors who meet cute at a bar and whose pre-baby life is presented in a montage so sweet it could give you a toothache) realize something is wrong with their son, they man up to do battle with whatever that something is. Their friends and relatives are also recruited for the many skirmishes to come, and the entire French medical system seems to be at their disposal, as well (Donzelli and Elkaïm should give thanks every day that they live in a country that believes in first-class healthcare for everyone, even the mysteriously ill children of young adults who don’t work for major corporations).

To be fair, Declaration of War was a big hit in France and was that country’s nomination for the Foreign Language Oscar (it didn’t make the final cut), so if you are of a Gallic frame of mind, you might enjoy it a lot more than I did. The cinematography is stunning, the central characters attractive, the pacing snappy, and the montages well-constructed, but this combination of elements seems bizarre in a film whose central event is a child’s potentially fatal illness. In fact, Declaration of War sometimes feels like a parody of any number of light French comedies, one in which the most important point is that the central characters remain beautiful (and surrounded by charming and attractive friends) throughout their son’s diagnosis and treatment. Any stress they feel—mental, emotional, financial, or otherwise—is quickly relegated to the sidelines in favor of another perky montage.

Then again, my reaction may be based on cultural assumptions that don’t apply to these characters. You may have read about how French children are well-behaved because they are made to understand early on that they are not the ruling force in their parent’s lives, and that French parents manage to continue a life of adult pleasures even after the arrival of the little ones. I’m hesitant to endorse such cultural generalities based on a single book, but if there’s any general truth in Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé (the British title is Why French Children Don’t Throw Food), then maybe this difference in attitudes explains why this French film could be such a hit in France, yet leave me alternately irritated and bored. | Sarah Boslaugh

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