There is far too much going on in French actress/director Valérie Donzelli's sophomore film to be able to focus exclusively on its cinematic qualities, good as they may be. This is simply because it's impossible, no matter how much you try, to separate the film's premise from the story it tells. And that is a tall order in itself, as La Guerre est déclarée is that tricky staple, the illness melodrama, describing what happens when the two-year-old child of a young Parisian couple (played by the director and Jérémie Elkaïm) is diagnosed with a malignant tumour.

     The big miracle of Ms. Donzelli's film is that it deliberately refuses the traps such a premise sets up, preferring to turn its attention away from the misery and drama to the insouciant energy of celebrating life, following the couple as they make sure that every single moment is meaningful and worthwhile, both for them and for their child. That alone would be enough to set La Guerre est déclarée apart, but it's even more amazing that Ms. Donzelli pulls it off so successfully for most of the film, by making it not so much about the illness as about the love story between the couple, slyly called Roméo and Juliette, and how they decide to make a pact to defy death by using that love as shield and armour against the dark days ahead.

     It doesn't work all the way: the battle against disease does sap your energies and, just as Roméo and Juliette are at some point spent and their attempt to laugh in the face of death turns into an exhausting routine, so does the film run out of the pop energy that boosted it, and begins skirting the edges of a conventional relationship melodrama, even if smarter and dryer-eyed than most. It was probably far too much to expect Ms. Donzelli to keep it up through an entire film, but it's no less an honourable try, not in the least because it's her own story that she is fictionalising in the film. It was her own, and her co-star and co-writer Mr. Elkaïm, child that was diagnosed with a malignant tumour, it was their own experience they are retelling (even though by the time the film was made they were no longer a couple), and even though it isn't a straight account of real events, that proximity to real life renders it a peculiar experience - leading into an unusual territory of personal exposure that is as exhilarating as it is uncomfortable, and that will inescapably shape your own perception.

Valérie Donzelli, Jérémie Elkaïm, César Desseix, Gabriel Elkaïm; Brigitte Sy, Elina Löwensohn, Michèle Moretti, Philippe Laudenbach, Bastien Bouillon; Béatrice de Staël, Anne le Ny, Frédéric Pierrot, Élisabeth Dion.
     Director, Ms. Donzelli; writers, Ms. Donzelli, Mr. Elkaïm; cinematography, Sébastien Buchmann (colour, widescreen); production designer, Gaëlle Usandivaras; costume designer, Élisabeth Méhu; editor, Pauline Gaillard; producer, Édouard Weil (Rectangle Productions in association with Wild Bunch, Cofinova 7, Uni Étoile 8, ARTE, Cofinova 6), France, 2011, 100 minutes.
     Screened: Lisbon & Estoril Film Festival 2011 competition advance DVD screener, Lisbon, November 6th 2011.

La Guerre est déclarée - Bande Annonce por wildbunch-distrib


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