Sunday, February 5, 2012

Andrew O'Hehir: Surviving a parents’ nightmare, with wine and sex: A young couple faces their son's deadly illness, with Parisian flair, in Declaration of War

Surviving a parents’ nightmare, with wine and sex: A young couple faces their son's deadly illness, with Parisian flair, in "Declaration of War"
By Andrew O'Hehir

Channeling personal trauma into creative work is pretty much what artists do, as Dr. Freud and Vincent van Gogh could have told you. In the case of French actress and director Valérie Donzelli’s striking and imaginative film “Declaration of War,” the autobiographical element is so strong that the movie’s virtually a docudrama – but a dazzlingly strange docudrama with musical numbers, choreographed interludes and prodigious cinematic verve. What could have been a wrenching family tear-jerker, in which a young couple discovers that their infant son is dangerously ill, becomes a bittersweet tragicomedy in the classic French style, suggestive of Jacques Demy, Christophe Honoré or François Ozon. (“Declaration of War” opened the Critic’s Week at Cannes this year, and now reaches theaters just after its United States premiere at Sundance.)

Mind you, “Declaration of War” still is a profoundly affecting family drama, no matter how much artifice Donzelli piles on top of it. If you’re a parent of young children (as I am), you’ll have to use your own judgment about how much you can take. I understand why some people respond to the health catastrophes of other people’s kids by shutting them out, as if the bad juju might be infectious. That’s how the young father in the film (Jérémie Elkaïm, who is or was Donzelli’s real-life partner, and co-wrote the screenplay) reacts when another kid in their son’s hospital ward dies: Geez, that’s too bad; let’s move on. Let’s face it, every parent harbors these fears, and every time you’re waiting for a phone call from the doctor – even if it’s about allergy testing, or a strep-throat culture – you secretly prepare for the worst.

Although the story of “Declaration of War” apparently hews closely to the real-life saga that Donzelli and Elkaïm endured along with their son, Donzelli kicks it up to a mythic and slightly surreal level right away. When their two characters first meet, and click erotically, against the pounding dance-pop of a Parisian nightclub, they discover that their names are Roméo (Elkaïm) and Juliette (Donzelli). “Does this mean we’ll have a love story with a tragic ending?” he murmurs in her ear. You can view that choice as daring or way too precious; I kind of think it’s both, but by that point I had already been sucked in by the visual and auditory undertow of Donzelli’s style, and just went for the ride. (Full credit also to the spectacular cinematography of Sébastien Buchmann.)

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