Battleground, by Scott Nye
What could we have possibly done to deserve so great a film as Declaration of War so early in the year? The common wisdom is that this time of year is for schlock and the occasional film that rises above, but this…this isn’t one to be overestimated merely because of its release date. In fact, I saw this back in October, and have scarcely stopped thinking about it all the way through the mania of Oscar season. It’s a film that is uniquely its own thing, yet its antecedents couldn’t be clearer. It’s a film that seamlessly, seemingly effortlessly, blends the tension of a chase film from the 60s with musicals with French romances with medical dramas with American marriage-on-the-rocks pictures. How could any film move through such seemingly disparate genres in a mere 100 minutes and still feel completely honest? You should be so lucky to see.
The flights of fancy begin early, when two characters named Romeo (Jérémie Elkaïm) and Juliette (Valérie Donzelli) meet cute at a party and fall instantly, passionately in love. The montage that follows is an impeccable blend of light comedy and intimate melodrama, and is the kind of thing a picture lives or dies by – if you aren’t on board with the couple, any struggle they go through is going to be a really tough sell, emotionally (just ask Like Crazy). But before long, they have a child together, and everything is going wonderfully, until suddenly it doesn’t – their son has cancer.
In case my above description wasn’t clear, what follows is so far removed from what you would expect, while still being achingly honest about the horror of their situation, and the small victories along the way. Romeo and Juliette don’t always agree about what they should do – practically, emotionally, financially – and those disagreements have tiny effects that reverberate through the rest of the picture. Cancer treatment is an insane process that demands life-or-death decisions in a matter of seconds, decisions with ramifications that will last months, if not years. Hell, each second is almost a life-or-death situation itself. Should Adam get this treatment or that treatment? Which doctor should he see? If they wait one more day, they COULD get this doctor, but then that’s one more day. Then there’s the headier stuff. Who should they tell? How soon? How much? How much can one celebrate good news? What counts as good news?
This is only Donzelli’s second feature (in addition to starring and co-writing with Elkaïm, she also directed), but she displays the kind of assumed confidence you don’t see in a lot of young directors. She seems to simply be making the most natural decisions to her, and the result is breathlessly beautiful. She gets at an elemental level the way long-term medical care decimates a person, never mind a couple, and while the story follows the basic beats of “this kind of story,” Donzelli never stops engaging with its audience. She knows exactly when to go for a huge close-up on one particular element, and when an aspect can be far more moving at total remove, even utilizing three different narrators.
I’m not at all surprised to learn the story came from Donzelli and Elkaïm’s real-life experience, as all the details feel so lived, so immediate. I am doubly impressed, then, that they found the distance to translate this into such an effective, warm, exuberant piece of cinema. There’s a scene in which Romeo and Juliette share their worst fears about Adam’s fate that is alternately terrifying, heartbreaking, pitiful, and hilarious, but…real in a way that doesn’t feel cloying. It’s just the truth.
I was, and remain, in total awe of this film.
I saw this film as an “avant premiere” at Paris Cinema festival last summer (2011). I found the film so very life affirming! Adam’s (Gabriel’s” parents came for a Q&A after the film. There they were – the two parents whose marriage fell apart during the years their son underwent cancer treatment. Their truths became the truth of the film! I just saw the film again, and cried more even than the first time. The film is absolutely brilliant. I too am in awe of it, and want to thank you for your review!