The new French film “Declaration of War” exists in an unusual, if not entirely new, genre. Valerie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm — its two writers, lead actors and once a real-life couple — went through a harrowing experience almost exactly like that of the characters they create for the film.
In 2005 their infant son was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and the young couple began an endless, stressful roller-coaster ride of tests, doctor visits, grim prognoses, surgeries and hospital stays. “Declaration of War” is a meshing of feature film and autobiography in which the lead actors basically write about themselves, direct themselves and play themselves. We’ll call it cinéma very vérité.
At the beginning of the movie, the couple (named Romeo and Juliette) meet at a party. “So we’re doomed to a terrible fate?” asks Romeo when he learns her name. It certainly doesn’t seem so at first, as we watch them in a montage of young love: kissing by fountains, enjoying a street carnival, bicycling down Parisian boulevards, laughing in a sidewalk cafe.
Juliette announces that she’s pregnant and soon there’s a child. There are plans for a new job, a new apartment, a new life, and all looks good, except that they begin to notice problems with their young son. He’s not learning to walk. He has trouble keeping food down. Then a pediatrician notices a bit of facial asymmetry, which she correctly suspects is a sign of something serious. The resulting hospital nightmare and its effect on the couple make up the bulk of the drama.
Donzelli and Elkaïm are a charming pair, certainly easy on the eyes, and the film captures a lot of small, telling moments of the ordeal. She winks at him nervously as she puts on a hospital gown and surgical mask so she can visit their son after chemotherapy. They giggle with a grim, stressed-out gallows humor the night before a grueling nine-hour surgery for him. They lie to the family, telling them the good news that the surgery went well but keeping silent about the more serious fact that the removed tumor was malignant.
The movie’s strength is in its straightforward, plainly told smaller moments, but the filmmakers strain at inventiveness, which often serves only to interrupt the drama: shaky hand-held camera shots, techno music as Donzelli runs down a hospital corridor, a gurney wheeled down a hospital hallway so long that it becomes an endless maze of underground metro passages.
I think American audiences will find it especially tough to swallow a sung duet between Donzelli and Elkaïm at a particularly dramatic moment: the otherwise realistic film briefly grinds to a halt when it tries to become a musical.
Elkaïm’s own portrait of himself can be pretty harsh: self-absorbed, angry, hedonistic and superficial. It seems an interesting and honest, if perhaps overly self-immolating, direction. Peripheral characters, such as friends and family members, are interesting but in the end aren’t given enough to do.
The focus stays on the lead couple, and though the details are nice — suburban hospitals are filmed in a comically bleak, existential way — little is revealed in the overarching drama. Stress and tragedy tend to be stressful and tragic. Couples fight, friends are concerned, families are affectionate. All this we already know.
Though “Declaration of War” is France’s nomination for this year’s foreign language Oscar, it doesn’t seem quite worthy of that sort of elevation considering how many great films France produces in any given year. It’s possible that the French are enamored of this particular former celebrity couple, who remain largely unknown outside France. Imagine if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie made a movie about their lives and it turned out honest, moving, self-deprecating, watchable and good. But somehow it just doesn’t translate into a great film of international interest.
“Declaration of War” is a decent drama, but it needs something more revelatory at its heart to cross from good to great.
“Declaration of War.” With Valerie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm. Directed by Donzelli, written by Donzelli and Elkaïm. Unrated. In French with subtitles. At the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema starting February 24.