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ADVANCE: Declaration of War - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
ADVANCE: Declaration of War
Directing: C+
Acting: B-
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Declaration of War is not at all the violent story its title would imply. One would assume the "war" declared is one waged on a baby's brain tumor by its parents. Except its parents never quite come across as two people who are at war.

This is more like a tearjerker crossed with a charming love story, two things that don't exactly mesh well. Perhaps it's meant to reflect the love between its two main characters, based on the experience of the real people who play them: Jérémie Elkaïm and Valérie Donzelli. But this story is merely inspired by their experience with a seriously ill son, and they slather on fictions -- and, by extension, contrivances -- in the name of movie-making. This starts with the very names of their characters: Roméo and Juliette. Seriously.

These names are set up, during an actually lovely meet-cute scene in a crowded room at a party, just so Juliette can make a facetious comment about how their names must mean they are doomed. And then the rest of the movie alternates between their years-long journey with doctors and surgeons regarding their son, and their almost curiously happy relationship given the circumstances.

Donzelli herself directs, and she and Elkaïm co-wrote the script. They have garnered a fair amount of critical acclaim, but although this movie is far from terrible, I just can't bring myself to find it exceptional. It should have been deeply affecting and yet comes across as oddly detached, and it frequently delves into stylistic flourishes that don't quite work. Do we really need a musical interlude in which the two parents' window car window reflections are singing to each other? This kind of thing is only forgivable when the scene has emotional resonance (consider the surprisingly effective interlude with all the actors singing Aimee Mann's "Wise Up" in Magnolia).

Even though Elkaïm and Donzelli are both professional actors (in the movie they have regular jobs), there's something halfway toward amateurishness in their performances. Maybe it's the closeness of the material. You'd think that would make them stronger as actors, but I think the issue here, really, is the direction: everyone in this movie is either only barely convincing or not quite convincing. The montage of their family members breaking down after hearing the news of the baby's tumor is particularly ineffective, because no one's delivery rings true. Even in French, a language I don't speak, they all sound and look like they're acting. The audience is supposed to be able to forget that acting is happening.

And yet, uneven as it is, Declaration of War regularly finds some way to re-engage. Certainly the two leads have chemistry. And it's nice to see this couple so dedicated to their son in the face of constant tragedy -- brain surgeries and cancer and years of chemotherapy -- but still able to go out and have fun in the midst of it all. Some people might judge them for that. It strikes me as healthy.

That is, until their son's ordeal has lasted several years, and voive-over narration tells us that they do indeed fall into seclusion and stop going out or ever seeing friends. That loss is never truly felt because it's not declared until near the end of the movie, after seeing several scenes of them having a good time together. Declaration of War doesn't seem to know its own direction. It has high aims and admirable goals, and is even a surprisingly pleasant experience given the subject matter. But in the end it's a fascinating story not quite done right.

Jérémie Elkaïm and Valérie Donzelli kind of make their own definition of DECLARATION OF WAR.

Overall: B-

Opens Friday at the Varsity Theatre.
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