Writer, director, and starlette Valerie Donzelli gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "auteur cinema." Declaration of War (La guerre est déclarée) is the filmmaker's new-er wave account of her and her partner's (co-writer and co-star Jeremie Elkaim) crusade against cancer, when their young son is dreadfully diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The film is not only exemplary of the art of filmmaking but the art of love and unselfishness.
Declaration of War begins with Juliette taking her son Adam to his MRI before we see the very twinkle he was in her eye. Thank goodness she lets us know he is alive in the first five minutes, or I would've been tearing clumps of my hair out instead of happily over-eating. Juliette (Valerie Donvelli) meets her real-life Romeo (Jeremie Elkaim) at a discotheque and it’s love at first sight. Upon hearing his name, she gives the same look of disgust that you’re probably giving right now. "So we're doomed for a terrible fate?" she says. We already know this, and that their names are adorably ridiculous – and this sets the audience up for being in on their jokes. From this moment on they have the kind of love affair you hope to get just one of in your life. They conquer the streets of Paris like they are winning some sort of lovers’ triathlon: running, biking, and playing as one beautiful four-eyed, four-legged creature.
They stare into the comparably enigmatic and erotic painting, Gustave Courbet's The Origin of the World, and their son Adam (César Desseix) is abruptly born -- THIS is why your mother warned you about staring too long at The Origin of the World [art, but still NSFW].
Adam screams all day and all night; the doctor’s diagnosis is too much love. They cut down his feeding and now they are a beautiful six-eyed, six legged creature playing in the tub and making 8mm memories. They gave up their respective dreams of being an artist and a record producer, but doesn’t everyone? They’re happy, and they sing things to each other songs only beautiful Parisians get away with like "I love your straight nose, I love your pale skin and your beauty mark." The last time I saw an American mole get so much filmic attention was Uncle Buck.
Adam begins throwing up often and won’t walk or socialize in daycare. Due to a facial asymmetry they are told to see a neurologist --- so their families come together. In a Jules et Jim-esque minute their family life is explained: Juliette comes from a perfectly stable family of four, who helps them buy an apartment Romeo has a free-spirited single mother and now a step-mom. They all agree Adam is "perfect" they also acknowledge he is "not normal" – and yes you can be both.
Afraid for their son’s prognosis, Romeo and Juliette cuddle on a cot. They hear over the radio that Iraq has just been bombed and we are reminded of the myriad of large and small scale battles fought by families each and every day. Juliette takes the baby to Marseilles as Romeo waits in Paris for the test results. When they discover Adam has been diagnosed with a tumor they are crippled with despair. But then... they each exhibit a visceral and violent reaction where we see them again as an entity – extending in mind and body in keeping it together to save their son. Like Alan Watts said, "No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now."
They are afraid of their son’s future because death means an end to all the joy and love we have been watching them experience. So instead of shutting down, they continue to experience the joie de vivre they want for him. They make politically incorrect jokes all night in bed about how the surgery will probably leave him a “blind, deaf, mute, dwarf, queer, black, Republican.” As if to say, if you thought a tragedy like this was going to make you a better person, you're wrong. You'll have the same sick sense of humor, just with a new thing to joke about.
They remind us an outcome of someone's life will never be certain anyhow, so they pop champagne to a successful surgery and disregard that the triumph may only be very temporary. They sell their apartment and spend their days at the hospital, but they continue to spend their nights out, seeing family, partying with friends, dancing wildly, sipping champagne, and waking in hung-over, just in time to spend every day in Adam’s sterile hospital nursery.
They aren’t self-involved in their rehashing of all these memories. Quite the contrary, this film provides an inspiring guide for people struggling with any tragedy, that it is important to continue a life worth living. And they know it. “Why did this happen to us?” Juliette says. “Because we can overcome it,” says Romeo.
The performances are so natural it is amazing their enactments aren’t adulterated by the real experience. This film tackles the problems of life and love, of pain and loss, of the true meaning of life – and elevates the New Wave style. I love La Nouvelle Vague as much as any other former film student deferring her loans to pay her Netflix bill (sigh) – but when Godard said “Photography is Truth,” it seems his words resonate even more with this film than his own. Like it's predecessors, it completely cuts through any sense of a studio presence, bops around different points in time, surprises us with snap zooms and long languishing takes, even throwing in a few claps that make objects appear on and off screen to keep our spirits up.
What more of a sense of pulsating realism could there be than seeing this real family in a true cinematic love affair, with a very special cameo from the real Adam, Gabriel Elkaim. There is no guidance in conduct for a tragedy like this one, but there is a guidance of conduct in life. Like its New Wave predecessors, it seems the titular political message means a future where people are only coming together to fight the truly impossible.