Declaration of War may not have secured an Oscar nomination, but it’s easy to see why it was France’s official entry in the foreign language category. The movie, directed by one of its stars, Valérie Donzelli, tells the story of a young couple, Juliet and Roméo (no, the coincidence does not go unoted) who meet, run away together, and, after a whirlwind romance soon find themselves with a baby boy. But it’s not long before things start to turn. Little Adam cries for weeks on end, has not yet learned to walk (at 18 months), and has taken to vomiting. Often.
Given its grim subject matter, Declaration of War could have easily slipped into a tired formula. But instead, its honest depiction of hardship and its inventive shots and sound editing make it one of the most interesting and compelling films I’ve seen in some time.
Take a look at the trailer:
The movie is a curious interplay opposing forces. No doubt some scenes will be controversial. One minute, the young couple is spending the night with their sick son at the hospital and the next, they’re making out with other people and partying. But it’s the tension between these binaries that makes the film feel real and amazingly honest. This is what life is – a constant push and pull: tragedy and comedy; love and war; chaos and order; chance and destiny (“Does this mean we’ll have a love story with a tragic ending?” Roméo jokingly whispers into Juliet’s ear when they meet at a party).
And the soundtrack is just as intriguing as its characters. LOUD, thumping club music sets the stage for Roméo and Juliet’s first meeting… cut to the hospital where heavy classical music sets the tone. Each time music is invoked, it demands to be heard and acknowledged – as if were a principle character as well. That weird experimental song in the trailer? It’s Laurie Anderson’s “Superman,” from 1981, and it’s a perfect fit. Heck, there’s even an odd musical sequence sung by the two stars sing themselves. (This is a French movie we’re talking about.)
Again and again, the music makes the film. In what I found to be the most memorable and affecting scene in the movie, Juliet has just learned about her son’s horrible diagnosis from a doctor. And suddenly, the regular sound of the hospital is replaced by a glitchy, pulsating beat the slowly builds and eventually erupts as Juliet sprints down the florescent lit hospital halls and eventually collapses on the shiny linoleum floor. (See 0:45-0:47 in the trailer.)
After I saw the movie, I learned that not only are (or is it were?) Valérie Donzelli and Jérémy Elkaïm a real-life couple… the story the movie depicts was first theirs. Their pain, their struggle, and ultimately, their triumph.