Joachim Lafosse, director of Our Children, certainly enjoys peeping around corners. Early on whilst watching his latest film I came to realise that virtually every shot was from behind somewhere. His camera lurks. His actors become trapped in sections of the screen. Blurred out walls or the backs of car seats squash them into uncomfortable spaces. Something out of focus is almost always there in the foreground, pressing them into the background. Nobody has enough room. It’s unquestionably a deliberate choice, as Our Children addresses a particularly distressing form of claustrophobia, both spacial and psychological.
Reuniting A Prophet‘s Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim, Our Children tells the tale of a young couple in love. Moroccan-born Mounir (Rahim) lives in Brussels with his adoptive father Dr André Pinget (Arestrup). Mounir has fallen for Murielle (Émilie Dequenne) and the film quickly establishes their devotion to one another. In fact, all three of them are close. So close, in fact, that when Mounir and Murielle get engaged, André insists on paying for their honeymoon – and they insist that he join them on it. With this kind of tight-knit family bond in place, it’s not in the least surprising when they end up living under one roof.
Lafosse’s film hops forward in time at regular intervals as Murielle grows pregnant, has a daughter, grows pregnant, has a daughter, grows pregnant again. Now with three daughters, that aforementioned claustrophobia starts to build, and Murielle especially starts to find life difficult under the perpetual gaze of André, their benign yet not wholly altruistic benefactor. It doesn’t help her that Mounir is impatient or at times simply disinterested in their children. Bit by bit, Murielle begins to feel like an outsider in her own family. Before she knows it depression sets in. And she becomes pregnant again.
With room to maneuver diminishing further, the young couple both look for alternatives away from André. Murielle, refreshed by a visit to Morocco, suggests that they take their children to Mounir’s homeland. As desperately as Mounir and his family have struggled to break free of Morocco, this suggestion does not land well. André finds their willingness to leave him insulting (despite his bolshy assurances that he doesn’t need anyone). The weight of family history and emotional blackmail (benevolent or otherwise) leads to one conclusion – they all move together, upscaling from a flat to a house. For Murielle, it solves nothing; more and more she feels trapped by a family arrangement that offers her no privacy. And now they have four children.
All of which might sound like run-of-the-mill domestic drama, were it not for the fact that Lafosse opens Our Children with a startlingly disquieting image; four tiny coffins being loaded onto a plane set for Morocco.
Thus, instead of an ambling piece of drama coaxing mid-level interest, Our Children is a tensely foreboding piece of work. As Murielle disappears into a whirlpool of depression, and as circumstances seem to conspire against her, the viewer feels an escalating sense of dread. It all eventually leads to five minutes of decidedly horrific cinema. Your blood will run cold. But there is no gore, no gratuity, nothing to avert your eyes from. The climax of Our Children is a masterpiece in restraint. Lafosse lingers in the background, hides around a corner, eventually leaves the house entirely. After pushing us too close for comfort, Lafosse simply takes us away.
You don’t need to see it. You know what’s happening. And the weight of the inevitable suddenly hits you like a sledgehammer.
This film crept up on me. The opening death knell glossed over by the sweet romance of Murielle and Mounir, only for the overwhelming wrongness of things to spread like an infection. The performances here are all grade A, though special mention must go to Arestrup, who makes André such a slippery figure that you’re never quite sure what to make of him. Going above and beyond however is Émilie Dequenne, utterly believable as a woman hemmed into a desperate act. She took Best Actress at Cannes last year for this. Deservedly.
Our Children excels because of its complexity of character. There are no easy answers here. All three leads are sympathetic. Your heart aches for Murielle even as she chooses such a horrendous escape route. More than anything, this film represents one of the most mature depictions of anxiety and depression that I can recall seeing on screen. That it never once seems to dip into melodrama is another commendable achievement.
Aside from Lafosse’s occasionally irritating obsession with shooting around corners, the film is well-made without being showy. There is precious little cinematic grandstanding on display. One long take of Murielle singing to herself in the car does draw attention to itself – but as much for the raw performance as for the lack of a cut. The unannounced jumps in time keep things pacey. For a film with its gaze so firmly fixed at its navel, it barely has a chance to wallow or become simply dreary.
Packing more of a punch than We Need To Talk About Kevin – a sort of circus mirror reflection of this film – Our Children is something of a sneak attack. A film which impresses and commands respect, but which you can’t exactly say you’ve enjoyed. This is a film not with a point to prove, but with a conversation to foreground. You may not have a good time digging into subject matter like this, but all due respect to its creators for spotlighting the kind of tragedy that tabloids tend to over-simplify.