The current wave of disease movies are disease movies that don’t want to be disease movies. Last fall’s 50/50 valiantly tried to avoid (or at least delay) sentimentality, if in part by adopting a crass, dude-ish attitude that meant pot jokes and some light misogyny. Declaration of War, from France, goes even farther into the brink: it bucks the cliches 50/50 neglected to buck. Co-writer/director/co-star Valérize Donzelli’s film tells of a young couple whose newborn emerges into the world with a tumor—an ordeal that in reality happened to Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm, who co-wrote and stars as “himself.” (Their film is loosely “adapted” from the truth.) There are scenes, particularly early on, where our heroes scream, throw fits, yell at nurses and other staples of this woebegone genre. But most of the time their interest as filmmakers is in the grind—on waiting nervously for news that could go either way, on essentially living inside sterile hospitals, on going on lavish celebratory benders after a significant hump has been bested.
That description sounds like the work of David Fincher or Steven Soderbergh, two filmmakers who, with Zodiac and Contagion most glaringly, have aged into dispassionate, obsessive chroniclers of process. Much of Declaration of War imposes a detached, detail-heavy quality onto the disease movie, but filters it through a distinctive voice—a playful, restive one that reflects its makers’ personalities. That Elkaïm and Donzelli’s stand-ins are named Roméo and Juliette, as established in an early flashback, is a goofy way to foreshadow not only the tragedy en route, but also the fact that what follows isn’t a rote hankie-soiler. As director, Donzelli rummages through her favorites, frequently busting out moves borrowed from the French New Wave (a know-it-all narrator, silent era-style irises, a scene where our heroes break into song), and showing off her eclectic taste in music (Ennio Morricone, ’60s rock-and-rollers Les 5 Gentlemen, Laurie Anderson). Declaration of War’s aversion to sentiment is so strong that it cuts out before the inevitable relationship tussles start up. Doing that ensures that it’s novel not only as a disease movie but as one of the too few films outside of the Thin Man movies where a couple rarely fails to enjoy one another’s company.