Valerie Donzelli’s “Declaration of War” is a peculiar picture in that it deals with such a heavy subject (a couple has to deal with the fact that their infant son has a brain tumor) in such a subtle way. There’s absolutely no melodrama in it. Through her simple staging of each scene, Donzelli (who co-wrote the movie with Jeremie Elkaim) is trying to make the film as realistic as she possibly can.
There’s nothing wrong with doing that. Last year we saw director Dee Ree do splendidly with her debut film “Pariah,” but unfortunately Donzelli is too subtle in her handling of the film to the point where it’s almost emotionally neutered. You may feel sorry for the kid but only because the subject matter requires you to. There’s no emotional charge whatsoever.
To start with the couple at hand is dull. In fact their blandness is quite astonishing. Donzelli plays the woman, named Juliette, and the man is Romeo, played by Elkaim. They meet at a party and fall in love for some reason and then in no time they have their kid. There’s no passion between these characters and we never learn anything about them (except for a few facts about their families in the beginning); therefore they don’t evolve.
Considering the sense of realism she’s trying to evoke, that could be Donzelli’s intent. She’s not interested in the characters as much as the idea of them. Romeo and Juliette are more like representations of average people going through this problem and in the end the movie seems to be about the situation. They love their child Adam and they give up everything for him. They get him the best treatment possible and stick with him even when complications come up.
If that’s the intent, Donzelli miscalculates big time. By not individualizing them we don’t buy them as a couple or as parents.
On top of that, the movie doesn’t always cohere. There’s unnecessary narration that comes in at certain times to describe scenes, give us background and to explain the overall themes of the movie (when a movie has to explain its themes to you, it’s a bad sign). And then there are scenes that don’t fit in with the rest of the movie, like when Romeo and Juliette randomly begin to sing to each other.
But the main problem “Declaration of War” suffers from is reason for existing. The film doesn’t have a dramatic punch, its subject isn’t original and its characters are outlines, so then what does it have? While writing this I couldn’t think of a single memorable moment. At 100 minutes Donzelli keeps the movie moving fairly quickly--which she probably did for our benefit--but a movie like this doesn’t need to be hasty. In an attempt to make a true to life movie Donzelli has instead made one that leaves you cold.