By Gabe Toro | The Playlist January 26, 2012 at 2:05PM
This Friday, multiplexes will sport the battered, wearied visage of Liam Neeson in "The Grey." As the poster has reminded moviegoers for weeks, this is a man about to embark on the challenge of his life, a struggle that will define every day he's ever lived, and the ones he might still grow to experience. "Live or die on this day" the tagline reads. But while the lanky action superstar will fight for his life versus a sea of computer-generated wolves in the Joe Carnahan film, the French picture "Declaration Of War" presents a much more significant, much more dire situation. And, like the protagonist of "The Grey," the characters in this film are prepared to lift their fists and face whatever challenges approach head-on.
It's a match made in Gaellic heaven when our romantic duo first meet. Angular Juliette (Valerie Donzelli), with her striking eyes and tight, aggressive chin, is demure. Wire-thin, ostritch-like Romeo (Jeremie Elkaim) is playful, and equally aggressive. Together, through the haze of a crowded party, they find a wavelength, grooving to the beats, their eyes and hips locking as if they were jail cells. First comes the intensity of love, all blushing cheeks, smirking love-making, and striking political conversation. The early scenes of "Declaration Of War" do not hide from this swooning courtship -- this will last forever.
A baby makes three for Romero and Juliette, but young Adam doesn't come with instructions. The young parents hem and haw over the best ways to care for their child, but what-ifs linger in the air, as they would for any new parents. Worried about their child, but confident about the bigger picture, they seek specialists. After a few procedures, which test the bond between the couple, it is revealed to them their child has a brain tumor. Still full of youthful optimism, there seems to be consternation between them that this isn't a problem that can be solved by their undying affection for each other, or for the small family unit they've only begun to form.
Being similar young professionals, bonded by an undeniable love, they become an island unto themselves. Friends come by and console them, but it's simply white noise to the couple, so confident they're going to barrel through this issue and come out on the other side feeling better. As a result, each doctor's visit becomes a battle, with the two of them desperate to extract whatever good news they can from the most dire circumstances. They have no bad luck. Rather, this disease is an enemy, and they are under attack. And they'll need just about every weapon at their disposal, fueled by optimism.
"Declaration Of War" doesn't sugarcoat their upbeat manner of tackling this issue. The decision to keep living loud, to keep embracing joy, is sometimes heroic, sometimes borderline foolish, and it doesn't allow either of them to escape from criticism of each other. Their disagreements are couched in the realization that they fight side-by-side, that this setback is literally a test, one they're determined to pass. The film, which begins in the early aughts, briefly mentions America's Bush-era war on terror, drawing a distinct parallel - both the President and our French couple are being bullheaded, and fairly emotionally reckless in their pursuit. Damn the torpedoes, they say, and live for the now. In the case of Romeo and Juliette, each drink is dedicated to their son. Each party is for Adam. Each kiss is in memory of their son.
A late moment when the duo react to bad news by going to a theme park features a sequence with the two of them on a series of rides, accompanied by Laurie Anderson's "O Superman." Anderson's moody experimental pop hit from the eighties, which calls into question the essence of pop culture heroes, fits accurately in observing the lead couple, who continue to fuel their campaign against this particular terror with smiles. Even with their own bright-eyed rebellion towards the sometimes-suffocating institution of marriage, they remain united against their common enemy, the remaining strength of their convictions making them the kind of complicated heroes of Anderson's song.
Donzelli directed "Declaration Of War" from a script by her and Elkaim, using the real-life couple's true story. Which is the sort of non-diegetic detail that enriches "Declaration Of War" and makes you re-evaluate the picture as a work of art. One of the ways our characters maintain their sanity is through art projects, and the very existence of 'Declaration' is proof that this method of coping continues for the pair. This is not the end of our story, Donzelli and Elkaim are saying, merely the beginning of your involvement. It is a philosophy shared by all great movies. [A]