A baby with a brain tumor is nothing but heartbreak, but from a storytelling standpoint it can be a real conversation-stopper. There are no villains, unless you count fate or dumb luck. And the heroes lack glamour: Disheveled in sweats or whatever mismatched clothes come to hand each crisis-laden morning, parents play a high-stakes game of Extreme Sisyphus, climbing the mountain of unspeakable treatments while staring down the slippery slope of bankruptcy, marital strain and uncertain outcomes.
When you have a gravely ill child, it's all about process, much of it dreary, some of it elevating, nearly all of it repetitive. Valerie Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim should know: As a toddler, their own son was diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer. Declaration of War attempts to chronicle the couple's struggle to keep him alive -- and not disabled for life -- without succumbing to despair or to the massive pressure placed on their already volatile relationship.
For want of a better tag, the movie is a romantic tragicomedy about that process. And though it's certainly moving, it suffers from a frantically overproduced desperation to hold what the filmmakers seem to fear will be our wavering attention.
Donzelli and co-writer Elkaim play (don't groan) Romeo and Juliette, a hipsterish pair with more than their share of Gallic style -- 5 o'clock shadow for his perfect jaw line, effortless under-dressing for her lithe bod.
The couple's free-spirited existence comes to an abrupt halt when Adam, the baby they conceive not long after meeting all too cute at a punk nightclub, develops symptoms that either mean nothing or signal something seriously wrong.
From there on, they ride the good-news-bad-news roller coaster of diagnosis and treatment -- every last inch of it, repeated over and over in what feels like real time -- administered by medical personnel (some played by actors, others by themselves) trying to figure out what's wrong with little Adam.
From the word go, Donzelli, who also directs, piles on the technique. They run, they dance, they bike, they fret and fight and make love, they decompress on amusement-park rides. They scream and exchange group hugs with Romeo's boho mother and her lesbian partner, and with Juliette's straight-head bourgeois parents; this is one high-octane family, its flair for melodrama underscored by no fewer than three narrators and a soundtrack that rushes between pop-jaunty and highfalutin opera. And in one ill-chosen sequence, Romeo and Juliette burst into song, warbling, "I like your knees and your little gray cells" at one another while riding the high-speed rails between Paris and Marseilles.
To be sure, frantic is the name of the game when you're the parent of a sick child. And to Donzelli's credit, she doesn't try to turn her semiautobiographical leads into saints. If Romeo is a flighty, impatient fellow forever on the lookout for escape routes, Juliette's a hysteric who faints on demand, launches herself down hospital corridors to a hard-driving soundtrack, and yells at hard-pressed hospital administrators when she might more fruitfully court their goodwill.
In the end, this self-absorbed pair's pluck in staying the grueling course is drowned out by their unceasing catharsis. Declaration of War is plainly meant to play as a coming-of-age fable about two immature people forced by adversity to grow up. Amid all the stylish sturm und drang, what really registers is less their fighting spirit than their silent helplessness as, garbed in hospital gowns and bonnets, they wave to their bewildered baby as he's wheeled away for one more surgery. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.