Our Children: Cannes Review
Family tragedy intermingles with gender politics in a strong showing from Belgian auteur Joachim Lafosse
Turning a gruesome real-life incident into an arresting portrait of one woman¹s gradual slide towards the unspeakable, Our Children (A perdre la raison), an Un Certain Regard film, represents another tightly wound study of domestic malaise from Belgian auteur Joachim Lafosse (Private Property).
Featuring a riveting lead turn from Emilie Dequenne as a young mother caught between two men (A Prophet stars Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup) in a claustrophobic nightmare, this gloomy and penetrating psychological drama should receive steady art house play.
Inspired by events which took place in a distant suburb of Brussels in 2007, the script – co-written with Thomas Bidegain (Rust & Bone) and Matthieu Reynaert – sticks to many of the facts in the case of Genevieve Lhermitte, who turned herself into the police after coldly and clinically murdering her five kids with a kitchen knife (the film reduces the number to four, but who’s counting?). While such an act may ultimately be inexplicable, the various reasons posited by Our Children very much fit in with the oeuvre of the 37-year-old Lafosse, whose previous films (Private Property, Private Lessons) explored the effects of perversely close-knit relationships on a handful of characters.
In this instance, the story of Belgian schoolteacher, Murielle (Dequenne), and Moroccan immigrant, Mounir (Rahim), starts off on a rather upbeat note with them falling madly in love and deciding to live together in the home of Mounir’s surrogate father, Doctor Pinget (Arestrup). But as Murielle quickly learns, the physician casts a paralyzing shadow over his young ward, whom he brought over to Belgium years earlier, while also marrying Mounir’s sister for visa purposes.
When Murielle gives birth to a first and then a second child, life for the young couple seems more or less satisfying, even if Pinget tends to micromanage the household, from which he also runs a medical practice where Mounir works as his secretary. But when a third child arrives, the burden it places on the two parents is exacerbated by the doctor’s increasingly guru-like sway over Mounir, who has no means to support his family and relies on Pinget nearly every step of the way (a sexual background between the two is suggested at one point, though never confirmed).
There’s a part of Murielle that constantly urges her husband to distance himself from the authoritarian doctor, and another that welcomes the man’s presence, at least financially speaking. Indeed, as Pinget himself cynically explains, the two lovebirds – soon with a fourth child en route – would have a hard time surviving on their own, and he quickly bats down their pipedream of moving to Mounir’s homeland with the contempt of a seasoned colonialist. (“Do you know what life is like in Morocco?” he barks at his native-born protégé.)
Beyond such underlying commentaries on immigration and class status, Lafosse constantly reveals how the doctor’s good deeds are really used to dominate the couple both economically and emotionally, bringing them to a state of social asphyxiation. And as Murielle gets further sucked into the oppressive homestead, her various escape routes – including visits with a psychiatrist (Nathalie Boutefeu) and a brief but pleasant sojourn at the home of Mounir’s mother – slowly dry up, driving her towards the final, horrific act (for which Lafosse thankfully spares us the gritty details, confining things to a chilling off-screen space).
In one of her strongest leading roles to date, Dequenne (The Girl on the Train, Rosetta) does a remarkable job depicting Murielle’s wavering psychological states as she heads for oblivion, and an extended sequence-shot where she drives home while singing a Julien Clerc song is particularly unforgettable. If her character’s motivations are never fully understandable – some may wonder why the well-educated Murielle doesn’t just grab the kids and leave – the feeling that the walls are constantly closing in around her is extremely well illustrated.
Reteaming to play a duo similar to the one in A Prophet, Rahim and Arestrup maintain the film’s tense and sinister tone – the former providing a convincing mix of fragility and machismo, and the latter looking and acting more and more like Brando in the latter half of his career.
Widescreen cinematography by Jean-Francois Hensgens (Dark Tide) constantly uses objects or characters to blur a portion of the frame, as if the truth about the events could never be completely brought into focus. Decors by regular P.D. Anne Falgueres are comprised of tidy bourgeois living quarters where the curtains are always drawn and the family seems to be on permanent house arrest.
Director: Joachim Lafosse
Screenwriters: Joachim Lafosse, Thomas Bidegain, Matthieu Reynaert
Producers: Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart, Jani Thitges, Sylvie Pialat, Thierry Spicher
Director of photography: Jean-Francois Hensgens
Production designer: Anne Falgueres
Costume designer: Magdalena Labuz
Editor: Sophie Vercruysse
Sales Agent: Les Films du Losange
No rating, 110 minutes