When the young couple whose relationship is the fond focus of Declaration Of War first meet in a punk club, they discover to their amusement that they are Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) and Juliette (Valérie Donzelli). “So we’re doomed to a terrible fate?” Elkaïm asks before planting a kiss on Donzelli. As it turns out, they are, though not one involving feuding families and faked deaths. They fall in love, move in together, and have a son, who isn’t yet 2 years old when he’s diagnosed with a brain tumor. The film is about their struggle through the treatment process, an unsparing look at dealing with the serious illness of a child, as filtered through a breathtakingly vital New Wave lens. Declaration Of War doesn’t make light of tragedy, but it celebrates the strength and perseverance that those suffering through it find within themselves, and slashes its story through with musical numbers, giddy montages, and three narrators offering insight on the proceedings.
Declaration Of War is based on the actual experiences of Donzelli and Elkaïm, creative partners who are also former romantic ones, and whose first child was similarly diagnosed with cancer. The specificity of the details and the assurance with which the story unfolds are of the sort that could only be drawn from real life, as is the underlying sense of relief beneath even the most tumultuous scenes. This is a journey that all parties survived, which viewers know from the beginning; that makes the film’s whimsical impressionism moving instead of jarring. The film isn’t really about the baby, who’s just a wobbly toddler when he’s diagnosed. It’s about his parents, who until this point never thought of themselves as much more than giant children, stealing puffs off other people’s cigarettes and recruiting their complaining friends to help renovate their new apartment.
The nightmarish realization that something isn’t right with their child is paired with the couple’s alarm that they aren’t ready to handle what’s to come, though the film gently asserts that no one is initially prepared for an experience like the one Donzelli and Elkaïm go through. Sprinting through hospital rooms, parties, sterile corridors, and grayish courtyards, Declaration Of War salutes its characters’ capacity to step up and meet life’s harshest unexpected demands.