Our Children, an entry from Belgium at the N.Y. Film festival is challenging and provocative. Its subject matter, dealing with a young woman’s murder of her four children, may hurt its chances for a release here, but it is skillfully made and absorbing, if ultimately unsatisfying as drama.
The director, Joachim Lafosse, has said that it was an actual case that inspired him to make the film. He wanted to portray the woman who would do such a thing as a victim, instead of the monster she appears to be. And he wanted her crime to follow as the natural consequence of neo-colonialism.
He sets up the situation intriguingly. We first see the woman, Murielle, played by Emilie Dequenne, in the hospital after her suicide attempt following the murders. In flashback, we see her as a beautiful young woman in love with a young Moroccan man, Mounir, played by Tahar Rahim, who had been brought to Belgium as a boy by a wealthy doctor, who adopted him. The doctor, Andre, had married the boy’s sister, but only to allow her to enter the country; he never lived with her after that. It is clear he was only interested in Mounir, and raised him to be totally dependent on him.
Andre is understandably resistant to Mounir’s marriage to Murielle. Cunningly, he pays their rent and employs Mounir as an office assistant for his practice. We see how he constantly undermines the young man’s confidence, inevitably driving Murielle into rebellion. These scenes are skillfully blended with the births of the couple’s four children. We see each from infancy onward, making us anticipate their murders with an uneasy dread.
The first hour of the film is absorbing and credible because it focuses on the story of these three people. We are always aware of the tragic events to come, but we are also driven by a fascination with the relationship between Andre and Mounir. Why did Andre adopt a pre-adolescent boy from a foreign culture and then raise him as a single parent? The likelihood of sexual abuse is so obvious, we wait for this question to be answered.
But Lafosse never does that. He raises it, even states it explicitly once, and then drops it. The film ultimately disappoints because the issue is left hanging while it shifts focus to Rachida’s deepening depression, and her terrible solution.
This problem is made worse, in a sense, because of one of the film’s major pleasures. The role of Andre is played by Niels Arestrup, one of the most charismatic actors in films today. He totally dominates every scene he is in, especially when manipulating his adopted son to cause a rift between the couple. And when Murielle is functioning normally, she makes a worthy opponent. Although her performance is excellent throughout, Dequenne cannot restore dramatic tension once the film concentrates solely on her growing madness.
The film ends abruptly, leaving many questions unanswered. And its thesis is somewhat tendentious, arguing that the corrupting influence of colonialism can be blamed for isolated acts of madness. Major filmmakers have often tried to link politics to aberrant sexual or criminal behavior, such as Visconti in The Damned, but I can’t think of one film where it is completely successful.
Whatever its flaws, Our Children is gripping for most of its length. Joachim Lafosse has got to be counted among the most interesting of the new European filmmakers.