Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fighting for a child's life

A French movie about parents under extreme stress.

There's a little too much cinematic self-consciousness in Declaration of War, a French melodrama about the travails of a couple shamelessly named Romeo and Juliette. Romeo and Juliette meet at a party, tumble through a furious courtship montage and wind up with a new baby. As is often the case, the glow of romance quickly gives way to practical concerns. The baby cries all the time. Romeo is trying to whip a new apartment into shape. Sounds familiar, but not all the couple's problems fall within normal parameters. Romeo and Juliette soon learn that their baby has a brain tumor, and this very scary knowledge sets the movie on its true course. It's probably important to know that director Valerie Donzelli, who plays Juliette, once had a relationship with the actor who plays Romeo, Jérémie Elkaïm. The two had a baby together and that baby went through arduous cancer treatments, some of them in the hospital where much of Declaration of War was filmed. The elements for a moving story are in place, but Donzelli doesn't always help her dramatic cause. Some of the cinematic devices she employees seem a little too cute for this kind of subject matter. These include intermittent chunks of narration that help the movie leap ahead in time and a bit in which Romeo and Juliette express their love in song. Fortunately, a welcome level of realism partially offsets Donzelli's worst impulses; Romeo and Juliette are beaten down by what seems an endless round of medical treatments in which every bit of good news (the tumor has been removed) seems to be followed by an equal helping of woe (it was malignant). The baby's difficulties begin at roughly the same time as the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the real war here is between two indefatigable parents and the disease that threatens their child. Donzelli makes no attempt to canonize herself or her partner in this intermittently affecting look at what sustained stress can do to young lovers who get way more than they bargained for. If life is a learning experience for which we're all ill-prepared, this story enrolls Romeo and Juliette in a post-graduate course.

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