Our Children is a harrowing portrait of a woman pushed to the unthinkable by the pressures and tensions of an increasingly troubled family life. From the opening shots of four small coffins being loaded into a plane whilst a mother lies crying in a hospital bed, its clear that the film is not for the faint-hearted but instead a detailed account of a mother in turmoil.
Inspired by events in Brussels in 2007 in which a mother turned herself in to police after committing infanticide, Our Children is a focused look at how such an act could be motivated. Following the high emotional intensity of the opening shots, the film is scene in flashback as young couple Murielle and Mounir, madly in love, decide to marry. Unable to support themselves financially, the newlyweds turn to Mounir’s adoptive father Andre, whom they live with in his large apartment. As the years pass and the couple begin to have children, tensions emerge as Andre’s doting presence comes to dominate their lives. The couple slowly begins to grow apart and Murielle is left isolated and alone, with all the pressures of family becoming too much to bear.
In the past, Belgian director Joachim Lafosse’s films have often been preoccupied with the mounting pressures of closely tied relationships, with Our Children taking this theme to a new level. It is a brave choice to tackle a subject that often is viewed as unimaginable, and one that many often find too difficult to consider. However, Lafrosse’s strength is not in bringing this issue into focus, but instead investigating how such an event could come to pass, an endeavor that he handles with great care and attention.
As married life begins for Murielle and Mounir, the overlying presence of Andre is immediate, to the point where it is in fact the two male leads that most exemplify a unifying pair. Mounir, who owes everything to Andre, is forced to place his loyalty to him over his wife, making her existence isolated and desperate. Niels Astrup’s performance as the ever-present father figure is extremely important in the breakdown of Murielle’s mind as well as her marriage. Andre appears both friendly and caring, but as the years pass and the couple take more of his charity, they become too indebted to him, making his presence all the more suffocating. The character is somewhat conflicted in that he is both grateful for their presence but also resenting of their expectations of him. Astrup’s performance captures this conflict well, as both a kindly figure and a menacing donor.
However, it is Émilie Dequenne’s grueling performance as Murielle that cements the film’s arresting effect. It is easy to see why she won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes for her performance. Tasked with portraying not just the breakdown of a marriage, but of a mind too, Dequenne’s performance is severely powerful. Murielle’s eventual actions make it difficult to identify with her, however, the draining quality of the performance makes the film more about the character than the end result.
This is aided all the more by Lafrosse’s careful and precise direction, using lengthy shots to allow the drama to unfold. The wide shots, which often use objects or elements of the set to reduce the size of the frame, increase the intensity and isolation of Murielle’s life, making her predicament all the more understandable. It is obvious that Lafrosse is more preoccupied with trying to understand her actions than defending them, and sparing the onscreen depiction of Murielle’s crimes is a welcome fact that illustrates the intentions of his film.
Our Children is not a film to be undertaken lightly, with a grueling central performance and almost claustrophobic direction leading to a tragic end. Lafrosse pulls out all the stops, from gender politics to racial and class issues, to make Murielle’s situation all the more desperate, and whilst the film may lay almost too much sympathy on her plight considering what it leads to, Our Children is still deserving of attention.