Nothing’s fair in love or war

Nothing’s fair in love or war

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The 2011 French film “Declaration of War” takes that familiar trope about love and war and merrily turns it on its head.

The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society (MVFS) will screen this romance about love played out in the context of a battle for survival on Saturday, May 12, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven.

French actors and former partners Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaim have drawn from their own lives to create the narrative for “Declaration of War.” Their efforts have won them Césars, France’s top film awards, for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Film, and Best Screenplay.

As fictional characters, the two meet cute at a disco, laughing at life’s joke on their respective names, Juliette and Roméo. The passionate affair that evolves does not, however, take the familiar trajectory of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers.

Instead, Juliette and Roméo begin living happily ever after, producing an adorable baby, whom they name Adam. Then a thoroughly modern Juliette heads off to work, while Roméo plays the stay-at-home dad. But the romance in this modern version of the love scenario quickly begins to curdle. Adam cries a lot and barfs even more. Then he begins to betray some developmental issues, and the couple’s pediatrician suspects serious problems.

Indeed, little Adam is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor by a specialist. The desperate young parents begin the battle of the movie’s title, taking every measure possible to save their child.

They enlist the aid of family and friends. Experts are called in; the medical establishment contributes the usual extreme measures in a fight against cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, sterile isolation.

Juliette and Roméo’s youth keep them from giving into despair, but it also encourages them to indulge in destructive forms of behavior such as chain smoking and all-night drunken partying. They joke about worst-case scenarios for Adam like his becoming queer or turning into a right-wing nutcase.

After Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal squeezed every last tear out of audiences in 1970s “Love Story,” Hollywood quickly wore out the possibilities for interesting stories about couples whose love is blighted by illness. But “Declaration of War” succeeds by taking this hoary narrative in a few new directions.

Reflecting today’s penchant for reality-based scenarios, Ms. Donzelli and Mr. Elkaim really did fall in love, marry, and have a child who developed a malignant tumor. Their way of coping was to turn life’s lemon in cinematic lemonade.

“Declaration of War” gains a certain authenticity by casually using the war in Iraq as its backdrop, and, even more so, by using bleak settings in actual hospitals and real-life medical personnel.

Bring your hankies to “Declaration of War,” but don’t have an anxiety attack. After all, the movie is a romantic comedy, and that telegraphs a happy ending.

“Declaration of War,” Saturday, May 12, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for MVFS members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, visit mvfilmsociety.com.