Belgian director Joachim Lafosse paints an image of how domestic bliss turned untenable builds to a crime unforgivable in “Our Children.” Helmer’s fifth and finest feature centers around a bright young woman who snaps under the increasing suffocation of motherhood, marriage and a repressive living arrangement that crowds four kids, a Moroccan husband and a manipulative father-in-law under the same roof. At this finely tooled tragedy’s core towers Emilie Dequenne, no longer the feral young thing seen in 1999’s “Rosetta,” but a trapped animal pushed to devastating extremes. With strategic fest exposure and critical support, pic should find smarthouse success.
Still relatively unknown abroad, Lafosse has spent the better part of a decade crafting realistically acted, formally rigorous studies in interpersonal dysfunction, only one of which, “Private Property,” saw U.S. release. A significant step forward in both style and substance aided by free-flowing camerawork and a narrative arc that spans years rather than just hours or days, “Our Children” should be a career-changer for the uncompromising director, who enlists “A Prophet” co-writer Thomas Bidegain and that film’s two powerhouse leads, Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, for this nuanced addition to an oeuvre keen on exploring intimate social arrangements in which a breakdown in boundaries can have dramatic consequences.
Inspired by a shocking Belgian infanticide case, the likes of which are echoed far too often by American news reports (including just last week, when a Florida woman killed her four kids), “Our Children” opens with a grief-stricken mother insisting that the bodies — whose we don’t know — be sent to Morocco for burial. A moment later, Lafosse shows four little white coffins being loaded into the cargo hold of a plane, an image just obtuse enough for auds unaware of where things are headed to overlook its significance as foreshadowing.
Flashing back several years, the script unfolds in a series of carefully selected chronological scenes, beginning with bilingual Mounir (Rahim) and his lovestruck white g.f., Murielle (Dequenne), excitedly sharing their plans to get married with Andre (Arestrup), a well-to-do doctor who clearly dotes on the young man. Eschewing traditional exposition, Lafosse instead focuses on the dynamics between various characters, establishing that Andre has financial power over the couple long before revealing how the generous doctor’s sham marriage with a Moroccan woman allowed his adoptive son to pursue hismed-school studies in Belgium.
The bright-faced Rahim looks even younger and more naive than he did in “A Prophet,” beaming with childish delight at the prospect of spending his life with Murielle, while snatches of Scarlatti’s “La Maddalena” heighten the romance between them. The use of music is a new tool for Lafosse, who embraces both opera and pop tunes, pointedly selecting Julien Clerc’s classic “Femmes … je vous aime” at the pic’s point of no return.
The film doesn’t give auds long to enjoy the couple’s seemingly rosy relationship before revealing hairline cracks in the facade. Daydreaming of Morocco, Murielle clearly doesn’t understand just how repressive Arabic culture can be toward women, though her situation makes clear that the Western world can be just as rigidly patriarchal, especially when one party controls the purse strings. In an act of self-serving generosity, Andre proposes that the cash-strapped couple move into his house, but doing so requires that they live by his rules.
Almost immediately after the odd cross-cultural wedding ceremony, Murielle begins having kids, delivering three girls in quick succession. Lafosse counter-intuitively skips the couple’s “significant” life moments in favor of everyday vignettes that actually signify far more. Despite eliding long segments of the relationship, the film bears witness to subtle transformations in progress, as Mounir asserts a more dominant role over his wife, Andre grows increasingly possessive of his grandkids and Murielle becomes wearily overwhelmed by the pressure from both her masters.
Where Rahim appeared to be the focus early on, Dequenne comes to dominate the film’s second half, edging out subplots involving the married couple’s tacky siblings, among others. Murielle’s turmoil shows on the actress’ face, corroding her once-radiant spirit as the film progresses until, by the arrival of her fourth child, she appears a haggard, deflated version of her premarital self.
In Lafosse’s first feature, the hourlong “Private Matters,” a father unable to accept divorce killed his own son. Here, it is the converse — a sense of being trapped in a restrictive marriage — that sparks a tragedy so unbearable, even Lafosse can’t bring himself to watch. And yet, he admirably asks auds to venture beyond their comfort zone, challenging us to consider the circumstances from another angle.