It’s been decades since television created a genre that pundits labeled “disease-of-the-week” movies. Cable networks such as Lifetime have kept the form alive, because such stories are natural fodder for relatable drama, while medical TV shows have never gone out of style. Declaration of War, which played at the Cannes and Sundance festivals last year, and was France’s entry for the Academy Awards last year, breaks with that television tradition by fashioning a story that is as much about a relationship as it is the disease that strikes a couple’s young son.
What makes the film even more unusual is that the stars (Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm) and co-writers are the real-life couple who lived through this experience; Donzelli also directed the picture. We see the couple when they first meet and fall in love. We witness the man’s less-than-ecstatic reaction to the fact that she is pregnant. And we share their anxiety, and anguish, when they realize that something is not right with their son Adam.
There is no hint of melodrama here, nor are there easy solutions to the couple’s problems. When it turns out that Adam will require full-time hospitalization and care, they abandon everything in their life in order to focus on him full-time. There is no guarantee of success, and the strain on their relationship is tremendous.
Donzelli’s matter-of-fact, anti-Hollywood approach to her denouement may strike some audiences as underwhelming, yet it reflects a reality we seldom see onscreen. Throughout the film she veers from formulaic presentation, using narration, music and other devices to leap across time, impart information, and move her story along. In its freshness and originality, Declaration of War is bold and unusual. Life doesn’t always lead us to a Big Finale, she seems to be saying; sometimes it simply flows, like a river.