The opening night film at Critics Week at Cannes Film Festival last year and also France’s selection for Oscar is “Declaration of War, ” a film written by and starring Valerie Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim and directed by Donzelli. The war in which the film speaks, is the war declared on illness, in particular an infant’s brain tumor. But what’s remarkable about “Declaration of War,” is that it’s not your typical “disease movie of the week,” instead it’s a mix of fight, verve and romance.
Playing in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre for one week, “Declaration of War” stars Donzelli and Elkaim as the young lovers, Juliette and Romeo, who meet cute at a club when Romeo throws a peanut across the room and Juliette catches it in her mouth. Next, is the realization of each of their romantic names – Romeo and Juliette. Is it destiny? A bright montage follows depicting their love affair through lovely sunny spots in Paris. Then comes baby Adam. And although the lovers are young, they’re committed to one another and to Adam, especially when it’s discovered he has a malignant brain tumor.
The film then shifts into battle with the young couple’s struggles with this new chapter in their lives. Filmed realism is mixed with surrealism as the couple haunts hospital hallways, talking to doctors and nursing staff, seeking answers or the best doctors. Donzelli uses microscopic imagery from cells being invaded to depict illness or heightens the sound waves from a MRI test. The footage at times will speed up or Juliette will take off running from the negative news while the musical soundtrack stutters. There’s even a scene where Romeo and Juliette in separate spaces, break into song, singing to one another for strength. This illness movie is like none other, which is refreshing.
Interesting too, is the backstory of the film. Creators and stars Donzelli and Elkaim were a couple with a son who was also diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor (the two are no longer together, but remain close). In the film’s production notes, Donzelli states, “The film is autobiographical insofar as Jeremie [Elkaim] and I have had a child who fell gravely ill. The facts are very close to what we went through, but the story isn’t our story.”
Donzelli and Elkaim’s experiences played a role both in the creative storytelling and in securing the sets and some of the cast. They were able to get the hospital in which their real life son was treated for one of the locations for the movie. Some of the hospital staff served as background as well. Donzelli explains in the production notes that since they spent a lot of time at the hospital and their son was cured, the couple was remembered by the hospital and staff. Also the filmmakers were very respectful not to disrupt the locations sets by shooting with a Canon HD stills camera using natural light and using a very small crew. The only shots filmed in 35mm are the ones at the end of the film, at the beach, which were shot in slow motion, she notes.
At one point in the film, Romeo wonders why the disease afflicts their baby son. Juliette replies, “Because we can overcome this.” Watching “Declaration of War,” based on Valerie Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim’s true life story, you might believe that the pair are prepared to overcome any creative obstacle in their way, which should make for many more interesting films to come – their next film together is “Hand in Hand.”
“Declaration of War” is 100 minutes and Not Rated. It plays at the Nuart Theatre for one week, January 27 – February 2.