Declaration of War

I’m beginning to understand the logic behind heading to “Talk Cinema” films at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts without knowing what they are. “Talk Cinema” is a monthly film screening featuring works selected by New York film critic Harlan Jacobson, and many of its subsribers choose to attend each month not knowing his selection.

But I always peek first, just like I did when Christmas presents called my name from under the tree as a very young child. The venue posts a link with information on the film just days before it’s screened, for those of us who like to look. I expected to watch a war film after seeing that the January selection was titled “Declaration of War,” and I did.

But “Declaration of War” doesn’t recount a battle of countries or ideas. Instead, it’s the tale of two French parents tackling their young son’s brain tumor. I wasn’t feeling particularly perky Tuesday night before heading out to the screening, and expecting to be hit with a depressing flick made it harder to get up and go. But something in the movie’s poster signaled it might be more joyous than morose.

And I was curious, having seen one of our own children battle cancer, about how another family’s struggle might look different from our own. Many in the audience spoke after the film of feeling incredibly sad while viewing it, but I felt quite the opposite — because the boy expected to die before he could start school instead becomes a cancer survivor. And despite the family’s tragedy, their lives are filled with simple joys that others facing less trying times often have a hard time mustering.

“Declaration of War” was written by Valerie Donzelli and Jeremie Elkaim, the parents at the heart of the film, and directed by Donzelli. Both were working actors in France prior to creating and starring in this film, which premiered during critics week at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and was submitted by France for the foreign-language film Oscar. Donzelli was also writer, actor and director for a 2009 film called “The Queen of Hearts.”

Their characters in “Declaration of War” are young parents named Romeo and Juliette. As the film opens, we hear two oddly similar  but jarring sounds — the beat of club music and the drumming sound of an MRI machine in action. Their time with one quickly shifts to time with the other, hasted cinematically by quick, rough shots using a Canon 5D camera and pulsating music that drives them quickly from the diaper stage to diagnosis — from feeling inept within the walls of their home to being empowered inside hospital corridors.

In the film, infant son Adam (César Desseix) seems perfectly normal at birth. Once home, he cries nearly non-stop — something parents and professionals chalk up to being overfed or getting new teeth until other problems emerge. The 18-month old can’t balance to walk and begins vomiting for no apparent reason. Eventually a doctor spots something suspicious, and orders the test that launches the couple’s journey into childrearing and cancer.

Our first look at Adam comes quite early in the film, when he’s eight years old and played by the couple’s own son, Gabriel Elkaim. Jacobson says it frees the viewer to follow the film’s sometimes wild ride rather than fretting throughout about the boy’s possible death. Gabriel survives cancer but the couple’s romantic relationship, conveyed in the film by singing to and with one another, does not — though they continue to parent and work together.

Jacobson shared his film expertise during a talk-back session after the screening, noting that box office sales in France rose last year as box office sales in the U.S. sagged. Despite higher ticket sales, he says, our box office revenues fell by 12%. 

Apparently Americans don’t have much appetite for foreign films. “If you like  foreign films,” quiped Jacobson, “you’re part of the one percent.” About 1/3 of foreign film revenues in the U.S. are earned in New York City, he says. Hence my daughter’s delight in seeing movies in Manhattan weeks before they open in Arizona.

The current “Talk Cinema” series at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts includes four more screenings — on Feb. 7, March 20, April 17 and May 8. Tickets for students (with current student I.D.) are just $10. There’s no popcorn, and the crowd is remarkably quiet, making for a lovely low-cal evening enjoyed alone or with friends.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to learn about a Scottsdale-based organization called Students Supporting Brain Tumor Research, which presents their 2012 Phoenix/Scottsdale walk-a-thon on Sun, Feb. 12.

Coming up: Celebrating MLK the arts & culture way

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