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.
A comedic drama about the stresses a young couple faces when their young son is diagnosed with a brain tumor, 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.
Far more problematic, and more complicated, is the film’s near constant visual/aural experimentation, mostly because it rarely heightens our sense of the material, but instead feels imposed on the project by a director looking to impress. So there’s superfluous narration, trickily employed ellipses, lip-synched sing-alongs, intercut Brakhage-like abstractions. The film’s misguided nadir comes when Juliette (Donzelli herself) receives her son’s diagnosis and immediately runs through the hospital corridors as an assaultive ambient drone and shaky, blurry camera work attempt to approximate her mental state. Finally, she collapses on the floor, the soundtrack goes silent, and the screen regains clarity. As an experiment in subjectivity, the scene registers as both dimly imagined (Donzelli picks the most obvious aesthetic correlations) and completely unnecessary (our understanding of Juliette’s anguish is increased not one jot by the way in which it’s portrayed).
But not all of Donzelli’s aesthetic choices are so ill-advised. If there’s one thing the film does well, it’s to suggest the alternating sense of hope and hopelessness and the feelings of repetitiveness experienced by parents with a gravely ill child. As Juliette and (yes) Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) navigate their eternal trips the hospital, deal with the resultant stresses in their relationships, make endless calls and visits to family members, and enjoy a precious few stolen moments of oblivion (playing in the snow, going to the beach), the film effectively suggests that it’s not the sharp pangs of grief that characterize the couple’s situation so much as the daily repetitious grind that, in their case, carries on for years. Furthermore, Donzelli succeeds in placing her often unfocused cinematic technique in service of this sense of endless dislocation, concocting a series of montages in which the couple perform the same tasks over and over again, often several times within a single three-minute collection of snippets.
But even when the film hits on some shrewd truths, it always feels timid about digging too deeply into its characters’ inner lives. Too much is either conveyed by narration, which covers far too large a portion of the central relationship’s eventual dissolution, or papered over with one more round of visual flair. It’s as if, having finally nailed something essential about the actual process of perpetual, deadened grieving, Donzelli felt constrained from looking too close and instead fell back into her perceived comfort zone, flooding the screen with one more cinematic trick plucked from the brain of a hyperactive, overly ambitious film-school freshman.