Our Children probably isn’t the best title for this film given where it goes, especially since some of the posters feature a blissful couple in love. The film’s called À Perdre la Raison in its natiive Belgium, which loosely translates to “losing the reason”; it’s also known as Loving Without Reason in other parts of Europe. Both of those are superior titles to Our Children, and better convey the gravity of the movie.
Director Joachim Lafosse had a difficult task: to make an audience sympathize with a character who does something awful to her own children. The film is based on a true story about a woman in Belgium, and Lafosse never tries to justify anything that happens. He wanted to humanize someone who does something unforgivable, and maybe find sense in an act so unreasonable.
Somehow Lafosse does this in Our Children, but not all on his own or all at once. Lots of this is thanks to his stars, particularly Emilie Dequenne. She found a very sad and very fragile human heart in the character she plays, and we watch her wither over the duration of the film. It’s a steady erosion of joy followed by the onset of something far worse than normal postpartum depression.
[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Our Children (Loving Without Reason | À Perdre la Raison)
Director: Joachim Lafosse
Release Date: August 2nd, 2013 (limited)
Our Children opens at the end of the story. There’s a penitent Murielle in a hospital bed, and all she can say is that she wants her children buried in Morocco. It’s their heritage, and it’s also a place that Murielle felt happy. Or at least she looked happy — looking happy might have been all she could manage. This is followed by an image of small white coffins on a conveyor belt rising into a plane’s cargo hold. For a moment, I didn’t notice the coffins; by the end of the shot, I hardly noticed the plane.
Unlike fellow NYFF50 film Araf – Somewhere in Between, which I liked but had a harrowing moment that maybe showed a little too much, Our Children doesn’t need to show us anything. We remember those coffins, and we’ve been thinking about them the entire film. Had Our Children become suddenly gratuitous, the film would have been less effective since so much of the movie is about the restrained observation of emotional anguish. (Araf – Somewhere in Between and Our Children could play a downward spiral double-bill together, but I’d worry about the emotional state of the audience afterward.)
Even though Our Children is centered around an act of inexplicable desperation, it has more to do with unhappiness, the loss of love, and what people do when they feel trapped. Without the act, the film would still be an affecting experience because Murielle is so sympathetic, but with the act we’re forced to think about similar cases we’ve heard. Lafosse and his cast desensationalize the horrendous. I wondered about the real-life women in similar crimes, and if any of them had gone through a similarly severe depression. I guess the greater horror in all of this is that real life isn’t as neat as fiction, so maybe, as much as Lafosse doesn’t believe in monsters, perhaps monsters really do exist.
The image of the small coffins comes just before the rest of the film flashes back. It’s as if the children haunt the remainder of the film. Our first shot of Murielle in the past is all joyful abandon: she and Mounir (Tahar Rahim) are together making love outdoors. They don’t have children, it’s before they’re married. They’e just two kooky kids in love, still so young and enchanted that they’ll tryst on the beach. We see Murielle’s face exploding with glee while Mounir is mostly buried at her neck and decolletage. They’re like teenagers. Mounir’s even worried about his much older step-brother Andre (Niels Arestrup) finding sand in his car (a hint of where Mounir’s at in his life and where he’ll always be). This is the happiest the audience will see the couple. There’s a moment when they make love later in the film, and it’s not as pleasant or as playful as this.
Andre functions more as an adoptive father than a step-brother for Mounir. He’s a successful doctor who’s more than twice Mounir’s age. He shares his apartment with Mounir, gives him money all the time, and even gets his young step-brother a job. When Mounir and Murielle get married, he lets them live with him so the young couple can save money. This is the sort of help that’s beyond overbearing, as if he doesn’t trust Mounir or his wife to grow up on their own. Then again, it’s clear that Mounir might not be capable of being mature — he’s not a good husband or father, stranding Murielle with the kids most of the time and blaming her for every mistake in child rearing.
I began to wonder if Andre was doing this out of actual good will or simply to exercise power over Mounir and his family. These actions are less the kindness of an older benefactor and more like a version of the white man’s burden. Andre seems a little condescending and dismissive about Mounir’s family overseas, and the few times we see Andre with his younger wife, there’s only a sense of gratitude or obligation rather than of love. (I don’t think there’s one loving marriage seen in the entire film.) It adds a unique cultural dimension to Our Children, and got me curious about how Moroccans or any immigrant population are viewed in Europe. Situations of unintended oppression like this must occur all the time.
Arestrup’s performance as Andre is just as essential to the film as Dequenne’s performance as Murielle. Mounir’s an aloof screw-up of a man and sometimes abusive husband while Andre is like a warden. His kindness, whatever motivates it, is suffocating; a show of power and control. There are exchanges between Murielle and Andre where you can see him bend her will. He can do it in stares or in slight fluctuations in voice. Lafosse situates his cameras around door jambs and doorways, as if we’re peeking in on these domestic scenes. Sometimes it feels like the camera is hiding from Andre.
But as good as Arestrup and Rahim are in their respective roles — both are basically sources of isolation and unhappiness — Our Children is a showcase for Dequenne, who’s so human and so real. There’s a scene as the film winds down where we watch Murielle break. It’s difficult to not be moved. This is what it looks like to be without options and without dreams. The power of the moment comes not only from the uninterrupted shot, but from Dequenne’s gradual transformation in the movie. It’s a scene that might not have had the same impact if Lafosse didn’t open the film with the aftermath of the unspeakable act and then the height of Murielle’s passion. We see the complicated, unfortunate facets of Murielle and the bookending events of a tragedy.
Not only does Our Children keep the horror off camera, but it also keeps Murielle off camera. There’s a pained moment of recognition. It’s disturbing because Dequenne has built such a human performance. This moment would have been unbearable had it been depicted on camera. If Lafosse had shown Murielle’s face — desperate, ashamed, an inmate in hell — I don’t think the audience could bear it.