Viewers of Our Children will not easily forget this harrowing examination of a seemingly perfect family dynamic slowly undoing itself from the inside. Belgium’s official entry for the 2013 Academy Awards and recipient of widespread praise is a subtly haunting film that by turns shocks and moves, but mercifully never falls prey to sensationalizing its disturbing narrative. In the vein of the best tragedies (and the Greek classic Madea particularly comes to mind here), the film languorously unfolds a fabric of events that envelops the audience completely and reveals the darkest facets of the human psyche.
Based on the horrific true story that still resonates powerfully within Belgian media stories of the last ten years, Our Children focuses upon the gradual disintegration of a family as a mother, Murielle (Émilie Dequenne) becomes gradually suffocated by her emotional surroundings and unable to escape the dark thoughts that plague her perturbed mind. Murielle marries the Moroccan Mounir (Tahar Rahim) at the height of their sweet courtship, agreeing to move in with him and his mentor and unofficial adoptive parent, Andre Pinget (Niels Arestrup). Pinget maintains the financial stability of the familial unit, but his constant meddling in their relationship and their dependency upon his superior income soon begins to take its toll. Additionally, his dominant role as the family doctor ensures the separation between his personal and professional responsibilities becomes hard to differentiate. Though the couple go on to have four vivacious and beautiful children, caring for them soon becomes overwhelming to Murielle, who has to cope with Mounir’s increasingly longer trips away to Morocco to visit his family. As tensions mount and Murielle’s isolation threatens to derail her sanity entirely, time seems to melt away as viewers await the inevitable outcome with bated breath.
Joachim Lafosse directs Our Children with precision and grace, masterfully condensing years’ worth of torn emotions and dramatic events into representative moments that capture the family’s growing dysfunction and the dangerous realm they threaten to enter as time wears on. Lafosse also shrewdly explores cultural dissonances, though interestingly, here Morocco is depicted as a place of refuge and peace where the couple is able to briefly find some semblance of harmony within their chaotic lives, away from their stifling apartment and overly didactic patriarch.
The naturalistic style and unassuming compositions ensure that the film embodies a slice of life aesthetic that is equally absorbing and unsettling; one gets the impression that given the right circumstances, anyone can fall prey to the same loss of reason (as so aptly conveyed by the film’s original French language title, La Perdu du Raison etc). That, and the film’s ability to align us with its melancholic protagonist, is by far the film’s greatest merit. That such horrific actions and nonsensical thoughts become valid, feasible, and even understandable serves as a testament to the film’s non-judgmental approach and its genuine impulse to examine the unexpected manner in which the base unit of love – the nuclear family – can turn on itself and generate demons that are not easily abolished.
This is portrayed in no small part through the stunning central performances by Dequenne, Rahim, and Arestrup. Dequenne in particular shines in her naturalistic and delicate portrayal of the transformation Murielle undergoes from a spirited and playful young woman to an over-worked, harrowed shell of a person. Dequenne has assumed numerous roles in francophone cinema over the years but is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking debut role as Rosetta in the Dardenne Brothers’ film of the same name. For Our Children, Dequenne explores a heart-wrenching demeanor and inner turmoil with such minute attention to detail that her Best Actress award for the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival should come as no surprise. Dequenne somehow embodies the madness and grief of her character without losing sight of the circumstances this very real persona is grounded in. Lafosse’s memorable and perceptive long-takes especially enable her to make full use of her immeasurable ability to crumble before our eyes in a sincere and enthralling manner. Her performance is simultaneously agonizing and evocative; like a lingering, slow motion accident, much as one would like to it is impossible to look away. Mounir and Pinget also hold up their ends of the bargain, although their cold actions and increasingly stand-offish, negligent attitudes seem rather brash and not entirely developed in the same vein as Murielle’s character. Even so, perhaps this can be perceived alongside the illogical factors that drain Murielle’s mind; even as the film probes her inner unrest and tries to find explanations for her thoughts and actions, it soon becomes evident that certain elements are beyond coherent reach and elude any rational interpretation.
Essentially, Our Children reminds us that Belgium’s moving arthouse dramas are capable of being on par with their more famous French counterparts and stand out in their own right. The film frames a tormenting narrative within honest writing and intimate cinematography that ultimately delivers a difficult but powerful look at familial cohabitation. Our Children is, at its heart, a film that questions what happens when the course of our lives don’t follow picture-perfect plans or straightforward outcomes, much as we might try and direct them to. Far from being a comfortable film viewing experience, it proves to be very much a necessary one.