Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Valérie Donzelli's and Jérémie Elkaïm's DECLARATION OF WAR -- France's submission for "Oscar" bait -- opens

How odd -- and a little unsettling -- to have found nearly irresistible the first feature film by up-and-coming French movie-maker Valérie Donzelli (that was The Queen of Hearts [La reine des pommes] shown at last year's Rendez-vous With French Cinema--my review is here; click and scroll down) and now to find myself so heavily resisting her second feature work, DECLARATION OF WAR, a film that proved much more popular than her first in her native France. (So popular in fact, that it became France's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Film, though it made neither the final nominations nor even the short list).

Since first viewing Declaration of War a couple of months back, I've been asking myself why I could so easily resist it, and I think I understand at least some of the reasons. Fortunately (or maybe not), most viewers will not be in my shoes, for they will not have had the opportunity to see The Queen of Hearts. (Though I hope they do, as it is delightful and original.) Ms Donizelli's style (the filmmaker is shown above) in both movies -- hectic, quirky and extremely self-involved -- is quite unusual, and I found this worked exceptionally well for the first film (a rom-com with enormous psychological smarts) and much less so in this new film, which details a pair of young parents whose child develops a life-threatening illness.

Donizelli and Jérémie Elkaïm (above, right, who co-wrote and co-stars in the film) -- are (or were) real-life partners who, we are told, went through an experience quite similar to the parents in the film. Initially Donzelli locks you into things via fast pacing and plenty of incident. I wonder, though, if the couple could have been quite so frenetic and ever on-the-move.

From the super-cute names the pair give themselves (he's Romeo and she's, you got it) to the soundtrack that never shuts up to the super-energetic non-stop movement of the actors and editing, the movie soon begin to seem a little -- no, a lot -- overboard and cute. Eventually, I swear, it could further curdle your buttermilk.

The filmmakers are quite right in their insistence that the movie be about the parents. It is their responsibility, after all, to see that their child survives. The kid himself, at his young age, can do little more than look sweet and get our sympathy. Yet I think Donzelli and Elkaïm mis-step by concentrating so thoroughly and heavily on themselves and their quirks. After a time, they seem to be, above all, prime narcissists.

The two leads are certainly up to snuff with their energy, and their supporting cast  -- which includes some fine French actors like Frédéric Pierrot, Anne Le Ny, Brigitte Sy and Elina Löwensohn (the latter's actually Romanian) -- does a great job with barely sketched-in roles.

Voice-over, slow-motion, a musical number and more -- Donizelli has packed it all in, and while some of this indeed works, it is finally too much. For me, anyway. You might have quite a different opinion. And since, at this point, I don't know that America will ever get to view The Queen of Hearts, I hope you do see Declaration of War. At the very least Donizelli's style, I think, is sure to seem unique.

The film, from Sundance Selects, opens this Friday, January 27, in New York (at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the IFC Center), San Francisco (good luck trying to search the web for the specific theater!) and Los Angeles (at Landmark's Nuart Theatre) -- followed by a national rollout beginning on Friday, February 3, which also marks the day the film will be available nationwide via Video On Demand.

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