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Valérie Donzelli's "Declaration of War"

"A genuinely moving ode to both the tenacity of filial love under extreme circumstances and the toll it extracts."
The DailyDeclaration of War

It premiered at Cannes (Critics' Week; see Marie-Pierre Duhamel's review), it's screened at Sundance, it was France's horse in the Oscar race (though it didn't make the final round), it's just been nominated for six Césars (Best Picture, Director, Actress, Original Screenplay, Sound and Editing), and we begin this roundup with Karina Longworth in the Voice: "The gorgeously scruffy Juliette (director/co-writer Valérie Donzelli) and Roméo (co-writer Jérémie Elkaïm) — yes, the improbability is noted — move from dive-bar love-at-first-sight to proud parents of a newborn boy in the first few minutes of Declaration of War. Then their 18-month-old son, Adam, is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Shot in the actual hospital where Donzelli and Elkaïm's actual son was treated for cancer, Declaration of War turns autobiography into thrilling expressionist art."

The diagnosis "is the point at which most films would start scrupulously wringing every emotional moment for maximum cancersploitation," writes David Fear in Time Out New York. "Instead, Donzelli gives Mere and Pere a moment to break down, and then the two steel themselves for a brutal fight. Friends and family circle the wagons; not even France's frustrating health-care system weakens their resolve. The longer Roméo and Juliet endure, the more this medical drama gently brushes aside every anticipated disease-of-the-week cliché…. Parenting relies on stamina as much as compassion, and Donzelli has, against all odds, crafted a genuinely moving ode to both the tenacity of filial love under extreme circumstances and the toll it extracts."

Just two out of four stars at Slant, though, from Andrew Schenker: "The surest sign that a filmmaker recognizes the insularity of his or her project is the presence of perfunctory attempts to hint at a wider political context. The clearest indicator that a director understands the insufficiency of his or her investigation into the film's characters/situations/themes is a reliance on seemingly randomly applied aesthetic frippery. Valérie Donzelli's Declaration of War gives strong evidence of both tendencies…. Donzelli's film takes place in a world of hospitals, comfortable apartments, and occasional getaways to the ocean. But a brief snippet of a radio broadcast about the Iraq War and a man sitting on bench plastered with a Vive la Grève (Long Live the Strike) sticker don't so much ground the film in a wider context as point up the narrowness of its concerns."

But for the New Yorker's Richard Brody, "the film is both a persuasive brief for the single-payer system and a reverent, grateful exaltation of the high science of modern medicine; other than the grim burden of their child's illness, the couple's biggest problems are emotional ones, involving parents and night life, with nary an insurance form in sight. Donzelli reconciles the grasshopper and the ant of fable."

Declaration of War

More from Dennis Harvey (San Francisco Bay Guardian), Stephen Holden (New York Times), Andrew O'Hehir (Salon), Mary Pols (Time), Gabe Toro (Playlist, A), Alison Willmore (AV Club, A-) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 6.5/10). Interviews with Donzelli and Elkaïm: Rachel Dodes (Wall Street Journal), Nigel M Smith (indieWIRE) and Pam Grady (San Francisco Chronicle).

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