Directed by: Joachim Lafosse.
Written by: Thomas Bidegain & Joachim Lafosse & Matthieu Reynaert.
Starring: Niels Arestrup (André Pinget), Tahar Rahim (Mounir), Émilie Dequenne (Murielle), Stéphane Bissot (Françoise), Mounia Raoui (Fatima Pinget), Redouane Behache (Samir), Baya Belal (Rachida), Nathalie Boutefeu (Le docteur De Clerck).
There are few things more tragic and heartbreaking than when a mother murders her children. Whenever a story like that appears, it speaks an immediate, almost visceral reaction with everyone agreeing that the woman must be some kind of a monster, and a few calls for more screening for post- partum depression, and that’s about it. These stories are too frequent, and they are always heartbreaking. The Belgium film, Our Children (the original title translates into To Lose One’s Mind which is more appropriate, but also more awkward) tells the story of one such incident based on a real life case. While the film certainly does not excuse the actions of the woman who we know from the beginning will murder her children, what it does do is make her into a real human being. We often assume in cases like this that the woman must have been abused – but that’s not really the case here. There is no one moment that leads her to do what she does – but instead a slow, steady culmination until she does the unthinkable.
The woman is Murielle, and is played by Emilie Dequenne (best known for her Cannes prize winning performance in the Dardennes Rosetta) in a subtle, brilliant performance. She is a Belgium woman who falls in love with Mounir (Tahar Rahim from A Prophet), a Moroccan immigrant. Mounir and his whole family has been under the watchful guidance of Dr. Andre Pinget (Niels Arestrup – also from A Prophet) – who seems to be a surrogate father figure for Mounir. Unable to find a well-paying job, Andre gives Mounir a job at his medical office – and after they are married, the young couple moves in with him. One child after another follow in quick succession – 4 in 6 years. And Murielle starts to fall apart under the stress.
The fact that Rahim and Arestup co-starred in A Prophet together adds a layer to Our Children. In that film, Rahim played a young Arab man sent to prison, where Arestrup’s veteran gangster takes him under his wing and shows him the ropes – until Rahim outgrows him and becomes even worse. The relationship between the two characters here is similar, but not exactly the same. Rahim’s Mounir is more passive than his character in A Prophet was – more willing to be dominated by Arestrup. There are moments where we futilely hope that Mounir may be able to break free from Andre – moments where he talks to Murielle, sees how miserable she is, and agrees that at the very least they should get their own apartment – or perhaps move to Morocco, where she may have more support. She doesn’t like being under the gaze of Arestrup – and wants to break free. And he always agrees – until he talks to Andre. For his part, Andre never really crosses the line into outright abuse of Murielle – he insults her, but not overly harshly and promises things he doesn’t deliver. And Mounir seems more than willing to follow his lead – the harsher Andre treats Murielle, the harsher her husband does as well. Both actors – but especially Arestrup – are excellent in their roles as two men who eventually break Murielle down, without ever quite realizing what they are doing.
But Dequenne is ever better as Murielle. I mentioned the Dardenne’s Rosetta earlier, and I bring it up here again, because in many ways the strategy of the Dardennes and the director of this movie – Joachim Lafoosse – is similar. In both cases, they stand back and observe their characters. The do not judge, but slowly over the course of the movie filled with such seeming inactivity and mundane moments, a portrait of their central characters emerge. Dequenne’s performance here is quite different from her breakthrough in Rosetta – where she was a fiercely determined young woman who just wanted a job. Here, she slowly, subtlety but undeniably breaks down. Dequenne doesn’t say as much through the movie, but the way she carries herself changes as the movie progresses – her shoulder stomp, she becomes more fearful of saying anything offensive to the two men in her life. There is a mesmerizing shot of her in car singing along to what sounds like a sickly sweet pop song, where she slowly breaks down into tears. It is a mesmerizing moment.
In the end, Laflosse’s film doesn’t excuse Murielle’s actions – how could it possibly do that? It also, smartly, doesn’t show precisely what she does, although the moments we spend with her children, who she one by one calls into her room are among the most chilling in any movie this year. What the movie does do is show her as a person – and show how moment to moment, day to day, year to year, she was slowly broken down until she got to the point where she did something monstrous. I’m sure some viewers will hate Our Children – they’ll want more defined reasons, more closure, more condemnation – but the very fact that Laflosse doesn’t give the audience these things they think they want is the very reason why the film works as well as it does.