‘Declaration of War’ wages ponderous battle

Sundance Selects
In “Declaration of War,’’ Jérémie Elkaïm and Valérie Donzelli play the parents of a son who has a brain tumor. The real-life couple based the story on their own boy’s illness.

“Declaration of War’’ has been nominated for a half-dozen César Awards, and was France’s unnominated submission for the foreign-language Oscar. It’s an earnest exercise in tears, stress, and glasses half full, with nods to the great New Wave tradition of rule-breaking moviemaking. It’s also as ponderous and overwrought as a film hogged by a couple of young hipsters named Roméo and Juliette can be. These two meet at a party and have a son, Adam. Adam has a brain tumor, and the movie would seem to be about everyone’s struggle to hope for the best while an assortment of physicians strategize to prevent the worst.

But the kid and the disease are merely an excuse for Valérie Donzelli, who directed and co-wrote this film with Jérémie Elkaïm, who plays Roméo, and cast herself as Juliette, to melodramatize and chic up whatever she can. So when a doctor delivers some bad news, what does Juliette do? She jogs down a hospital corridor while a song by the DJ and electronic-music producer Yuksek plays on the soundtrack. Hers is distress you can dance to. When Donzelli isn’t going for nightclub misery, she uses Vivaldi and variations on music from Marcel Camus’s 1959 film, “Black Orpheus.’’

The movie’s frippery (and the exceptional clothes) shouldn’t be distracting, but there’s very little, emotionally, to divert aggravation. Lots of filmmakers - including Claire Denis and Arnaud Desplechin - use incongruous music to blindside you and build a mood, to surprise you. I imagine Donzelli is going for the same effect, trying to use cinema to expand the emotional parameters. A lot of the movie is your typical family-battles-disease drama. So you can understand the urge to change the recipe and make something you and your friends would want to see - not to make “Terms of Endearment’’ or one of the shake-your-fists-at-the-sky disease vehicles that a few French actresses have made for themselves.


Here Roméo and Juliette communicate telepathically and sing in a kind of lovelorn music video. But these New Wave flourishes are as maudlin as some of the rest of the film is lugubrious. The couple’s families find out about Adam’s tumor in a montage that requires Brigitte Sy, as Roméo’s mother, to take a bereaved tumble out of the metro station. That might be rewarding for an actor to play but it’s embarrassing for an audience to watch. It just looks like she tripped up the stairs.

The film’s at its most bearable in the flashbacks before Adam’s birth, when his mother and father are just two people in great shirts eating cotton candy at a carnival and going for bike rides. Donzelli and Elkaïm have a child together and based the story on their relationship and their own boy’s illness. (I think that’s part of the appeal in France.) The gist of the whole thing is: When a child suffers (their son, Gabriel, plays Adam at 8), a relationship suffers, too. As Adam’s health deteriorates, so might Roméo and Juliette’s love for each other (amazingly, their cigarette-smoking does not). Everyone is hugely affectionate and hugely concerned, but in a way that only begs for your attention. These aren’t people living inside a sad moment. They’ve already lived it and survived. Now they’re performing it. They’re posing.

Wesley Morris can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.