When kids and cancer is a laughing matter

Declaration of War (M). Director: Valérie Donzelli. Starring: Jérémie Elkaïm, Valérie Donzelli. 100 minutes

A French film about a young couple who learn that their infant son has a malignant brain tumour; on paper Declaration of War sounds as if it could be either unbearably maudlin or tear-jerkingly trite.

This impression might be reinforced when I mention that the man and woman in question are named Romeo (Elkaïm) and Juliet (Donzelli), Parisian actors, and that during one scene they break into song, declaring their love and devotion for each other in the tradition of the most mawkish of movie musicals.

But in fact Declaration of War offers a fresh and even energetic perspective on its well traversed subject matter, which these fanciful elements actually reinforce rather than undermine.

The film, like its characters, frequently finds respite in humour. During the early stages of Adam's diagnosis their pediatrician, whose office is a cluttered with toys, reaches for her phone to call a colleague. She begins to dial before she realises she has picked up the plastic receiver of a toy phone.

Romeo and Juliet themselves seem permanently at play with each other and with their son Adam, exchanging quirky quips and good-natured physical interaction.

But humour is juxtaposed with intense emotion. When Juliet later rings her parents and Romeo's to break the news of Adam's illness to them, we aren't privy to the teller's words, but only witness the hearers' visceral distress. Detailed dialogue could not have made this sequence more effective.

Declaration of War is at its strongest during the moments when humour and pathos work hand in hand. In one powerful scene, a sleepless Romeo and Juliet on the eve of Adam's surgery confess their deepest fears to each other: that their son will die, or acquire a severe disability.

Having spoken these things aloud, they turn this, too, into a game, each adding to this list of fears to the point of absurdity. Far from making light of the situation, they find, in intimate humour, genuine solace from genuine fear.

The film's emotional authenticity is no accident. Elkaïm and Donzelli co-wrote the screenplay based upon events from their own lives, and Donzelli directs with a spirited and sometimes captivatingly frenetic determination to expose the emotional strengths and vulnerabilities of both characters.

The chemistry Elkaïm and Donzellishare is undeniable, and they are able to swiftly transition between moments of conflict and easy intimacy.

When Romeo and Juliet first meet they quip that they are doomed lovers, and in a way they are, although not in the way that their Shakespearian namesakes or the film's downbeat subject matter might suggest.

From the perspective of plot, the film's ending is slightly clunky, perhaps reflecting the sometimes haphazard 'plotting' of life itself. But Declaration of War ends on a satisfying and hopeful if not happy note, where the significant casualties of war may not be enough to eclipse the substantial victories.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Declaration of War, cancer, sick children



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