Valérie Donzelli draws on her real-life experiences as mother to a sick child in the whimsical, likable Declaration of War
<P><B>FILM</B> French actor Valérie Donzelli made her first feature as writer-director with 2009's <I>The Queen of Apples</I>, which trawled the film festival circuit for a couple of years — eventually getting its title tweaked to <I>The Queen of Hearts</I> — before making its unheralded U.S. debut at the 2010 Mill Valley Film Festival. It got a minor theatrical release in France and none at all here.
<P>All this goes to show that, contrary to all optimistic wisdom, not every film will find its audience. Not even when it is, in fact, the kind of movie that tends to win audience awards. <I>Queen</I> was endlessly energetic, quirky, and endearing, in the manner of 1960s independent films whose youthful makers needed to prove they could do every trick and break every rule in the book. It was charming despite being almost too cute for words, and a mite too pleased with itself. The slender story aimed for little more than charm: Donzelli played a hapless young Parisian flinging herself from one comically doomed love to another before winding up with Mr. Right, played (as were all the Mr. Wrongs) by Jérémie Elkaïm, who in 2000 was the unstable gay teen in Sébastien Lifshitz's memorable <I>Come Undone</I>. <I>Queen</I> may have been uneven, but it was frequently so funny that hardly mattered.
<P>Obviously somebody noticed, however, since Donzelli is now back with a second feature she co-stars in, and co-wrote with, Elkaïm. (Evidently other people like this team as well — in the interim they got cast opposite one another in Élise Gerard's 2010 <I>Belleville-Tokyo</I>.) It's even playing at a theater near you, at least for the next five minutes.
<P>Though more ambitious as (largely) a serious drama, <I>Declaration of War</I> reprises the same flaws as its predecessor, being over-stuffed with stylistic digressions, a little too eager to please at times. But once again it's a very likable piece of work that largely works on its own terms.
<P>While <I>Queen </I>was primarily content to poke fun at the great French tradition of slender twentysomethings moping lovesick about Paris, <I>War </I>declares itself on something inherently humorless: a child's grave illness. Juliette (Donzelli) meets Romeo (Elkaïm) — yep, that's a bit much — at a punk club, where his pogoing catches her eye. After a very 1960s montage of love al fresco (although they do not run through any flower fields), out pops the no less auspiciously named Adam, and all is well apart from some higher-than normal new-parent exhaustion issues related to the baby crying just about every waking moment.
<P>Eventually, however, Adam's tendency to barf, cough, and tilt his head leftward while showing no interest in learning to walk raises suspicions confirmed by Dr. Prat (Béatrice De Staël, who was also a standout as the heroine's neurotic flatmate in <I>Queen</I>): little Adam has a brain tumor, and there's a long uncertain road ahead that puts infinite strain on the young couple's individual emotions, collective resources and future together.