A real-life couple mess up the story of their own real-life tragedy

Declaration of War

Directed by Valérie Donzelli

Opens at the Charles Theatre Feb. 24

Montages. Oh, so many. They pour across the screen, aided by pop music, tugging the story along to its feel-OK conclusion. They’re lovely, that’s for sure, but it all leaves one wondering what exactly these characters are about and how they truly feel about the fates life has dealt them. There’s no denying that the story of Declaration of War is a personal one for both director Valérie Donzelli and co-writer Jérémie Elkam. The pair, who also star in the film, are actual partners in real life, and their son Gabriel plays their child. But when it comes to this brand of autobiographical filmmaking, sometimes being immersed in the narrative is a detriment. You view everything from your own perspective without allowing your viewers to shape their own.

Declaration of War is about a French couple named Roméo and Juliette (gag) who initially spend their relationship running around, smoking cigarettes, and making out. Soon after their child is born, though, they switch over to worrying, smoking cigarettes, and losing a lot of sleep. From the start, something is off with their son, Adam, who doesn’t develop at quite the same rate as his peers. Constantly sick, he can’t keep food down, and despite being past the age of 1, he struggles to hold his head up and take his first steps. They take him to the doctor, who sends him off to a neurologist; it’s discovered that the baby has a brain tumor. Faced with a parent’s worst fear, Roméo and Juliette dive right into the boy’s treatment, making it their sole raison d'etre. (The young artists never have to fret over the cost of the medical care, which might leave many Americans feeling a little envious.)

The film is gorgeous, a real pleasure to watch. With each frame carefully composed, the art direction shines through and dances across your eyeballs. Whether it’s projections splashed over the actors’ bodies or carefully crafted slow-mo, there’s a buffet of visual goodies to enjoy. The style is definitely strong in this one, which ultimately works to its disadvantage. For instance, when her son is carted off for his first of many tests, Juliette suddenly freaks out and takes off sprinting through the hallways of the hospital. The cameraman chases after her, resulting in some serious shakeage as blaring club music plays. It all comes across as a wee bit melodramatic, way too stylized and insane for the situation. Roméo experiences the same kind of meltdown when he learns of the tumor: screams, phone throwing, the pounding of blacktop. Over the top, their reactions felt fake, though in real life the two did deal with a similar situation with their own child. It seems that in this case, it would be difficult to direct either of them, since they’ve lived through such a crisis, and that would probably give both a sense of certainty as to how they should portray it. Perhaps they felt they should really inflate the whole emotional thing, but it came off as tongue-in-cheek and very, well, off.

And yes, the montages. There are many, which creates a sort of shortcut past the whole cinematic storytelling thing. Sometimes they work, sometimes they’re lazy. Detached narrators—one male, one female—drop in from the heavens and let us know what the eff is happening every once in a while, even when the images are in sharp contrast with what they’re saying. In one montage, we see the couple hanging out, having a great time at a carnival while Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” plays, but the narration talks of the couple fighting and spending time apart. This might be unfair, but it seems like a nice way around shooting a shitty bummer of a scene is to just film something fun and throw narration on top.

We’d be remiss to not mention the song, the one moment where the film suddenly becomes a musical for a hot several minutes, and the protagonists sing to one another after the discovery of their son’s brain tumor. A little crass, a lot ridiculous, the song could perhaps be justified by saying that the parents needed to be silly in order to escape their grief. But it just comes off as, for lack of a better word, dumb. Maybe it’s the fact that their faces are superimposed over one another that isn’t helping. Of course, that’s the problem with many aspects of the film: While noble in intent, they just end up doing more harm than good.

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