by Justin Senkbile
How’s this for a knot of art, life and imitation: not only did Valérie Donzelli direct, co-write and co-star in “Declaration of War”, but the film is based on her actual experiences with Jérémie Elkaïm… who also co-wrote and co-starred. This kind of work/life fusion is dangerous territory to be sure, but Donzelli not only seems to have come out of it with her sanity in tact (presumably), she’s made quite an amazing film.
In “Declaration of War”, Donzelli plays Juliette and Elkaïm plays Romeo (the name joke isn’t lost on them). They’re a pair of young lovers who suddenly find themselves to be young parents. But not just that – they’re the young parents of a child with a brain tumor. After a grueling series of tests and panicked drives to the train station, their son Adam’s cancer (played at different ages by César Desseix, Gabriel Elkaïm and Henri Hooreman), is revealed to be of a rare and particularly aggressive variety.
Which leads to further manic behavior on the part of Juliette and Romeo, to the point that they sell their apartment, and gradually lose contact with friends and family. Adam, still not yet at speaking age, seems brave enough to trudge along, and his parents are determined to trudge right along with him.
With a synopsis like that, you might be surprised to learn what a joyful, hopeful movie this is. More accurately, it’s a whirlwind of disparate feelings, which Donzelli orchestrates expertly (both as director and star) with a weight and precision her compatriot and stylistic forefather François Truffaut would be proud of. In fact, with its confident blend of youthful exuberance, savagely matured perspective and off-the-rails approach to film craft, “Declaration” feels like a close cousin to Truffaut’s much-loved Antoine Doinel films.
Packed with quick cuts, music, a pinch of narration, and even an eccentric moment where the actors break gently into song, it’s the film’s style that hooks on and lingers longest in the memory. But, moment to moment, Donzelli and Elkaïm’s vulnerable performances, their inarguable chemistry and their amazingly dense script are what leave you feeling melancholy and uplifted; elated and exhausted.
“Declaration of War” is playing at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets, through March 1st