Facebook Twitter

‘Declaration of War’ is pleasurable without a trace of woe-is-me

SHARE ‘Declaration of War’ is pleasurable without a trace of woe-is-me
César Desseix as Adam at 18 months, Jérémie Elkaim as Roméo and Valérie Donzelli as Juliette in "Declaration of War," a thoughtful look at parents with a gravely ill child.

César Desseix as Adam at 18 months, Jérémie Elkaim as Roméo and Valérie Donzelli as Juliette in “Declaration of War,” a thoughtful look at parents with a gravely ill child.

Sundance Selects

"DECLARATION OF WAR — ★★★1/2 — Jérémie Elkaim, Valérie Donzelli, César Desseix, Brigitte Sy, Gabriel Elkaim, Elina Lowensohn; not rated but probable R (profanity); in French with English subtitles; Broadway

The warm, engaging sick-kid film "Declaration of War" plays like a lost gem from the French New Wave. It's a well-written, sensitively acted and surprisingly pleasurable look at the experiences of a young couple who learn that their young son is gravely ill.

The gifted and lovely Valérie Donzelli, who wrote, directed and stars, based the story on her own experience. She plays Juliette; her real-life parenting partner, Jérémie Elkaim, plays Roméo, and they re-create their life rearing a toddler with a brain tumor in vivid detail. The strain on these attractive, sympathetic lovers is the subplot of the disease drama. They grapple with good news/bad news diagnoses and struggle to manage the expectations of their sprawling extended family (this is one of those character-rich films where every walk-on player feels as if they have a life story all their own).

The subject matter is as serious as can be, yet the style is vibrant, energetic and engaging — often tense, but without a trace of woe-is-me. Even when the parents are fretting in a hospital waiting room, you feel happy to share their company. When they break into nervous laughter, the power of their performances is such that you laugh along without feeling guilty.

The juxtaposition of laughter and sadness makes the important dramatic point that life is not predictable, fair or easily categorized. Donzelli recognizes that even when there's a happy ending, survivors of a battle campaign like this carry emotional scars.

The film was a huge hit in its home country and France's official 2012 Oscars submission. Puzzlingly, it did not make the shortlist.

"Declaration of War" is not rated but would probably receive an R for profanity; running time: 100 minutes.