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NYFF: ‘Our Children’ Is a Quiet Tragedy of Expertly Wrought Tension

By  · Published on October 15th, 2012

“Bury them in Morocco.”

Our Children opens with a scene of despair, a mother (Émilie Dequenne) on a hospital bed deliriously asking her nurse if the bodies of her own daughters can be laid to rest on the far side of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a moment of primal fear and desperation. It is not, however, a moment of clarity. There is no context to be had; only the image a woman on a bed and the following shot of Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup running down a hallway. It is director Joachim Lafosse’s opening salvo in a quietly violent film that will both assault and deeply move its audience.

And then, just as quickly, there is tranquility. The film rewinds back to a simpler time in the lives of its characters, when Mounir (Rahim) and Murielle (Dequenne) had just begun their romance. She is a schoolteacher. He is a restless young Moroccan immigrant who will soon agree to a job in his adoptive father’s medical practice. Dr. André Pinget (Arestrup) not only looks out for his protégé, but lives with him. He has effectively adopted Mounir’s entire family, and is even married to Mounir’s sister so that she can legally live in Belgium. Pinget’s influence over Mounir is powerful, even a little unsettling.

The young couple soon marries, but does not begin a new life. The good doctor continues to inhabit their home, with Mounir’s full support. Murielle, at first optimistic about her future alongside her handsome and loving husband, begins to drift. With the scope of a great classical tragedy, Our Children fast-forwards through the years, pausing only to give weight to the most significant moments. It feels like no time at all passes between Murielle’s four pregnancies, the house filling up with three girls and an infant boy. However, each scene illustrating Pinget’s complete lack of respect for his daughter-in-law or Mounir’s total disinterest in parenting seems to last an eon.

Driven into herself by the men in her life, Murielle feels alienated and alone. The constant work of taking care of four young children, with no help from her husband, drains her. Pinget, meanwhile, seems bent on exerting psychological control over the young mother. Confrontations begin to evoke Gaslight or Rosemary’s Baby¸ yet this family’s crisis is neither supernatural nor outright criminal. Both Rahim and Arestrup play unexpected villains, spitting out dialog with a vengeance. Yet the real break-out star of the film is the object of their frustration. Dequenne delivers an extraordinary performance, losing her reason so slowly and subtly that she is still capable of shocking the audience by the film’s dramatic conclusion.

Lafosse builds all of this tension into the last act of Our Children, framing Dequenne’s talent with patient storytelling and inspired visual choices. Murielle’s madness is a quiet kind of insanity, and is treated as such. There is no histrionic music, no opera battering down the walls of the cinema. Time goes by slowly but surely, emphasizing prosaic moments in this tale’s last day. Murielle wears a beautiful light blue djellaba, a gift from her mother-in-law on a visit from Morocco. It resembles a pale sky, an airy symbol of the floating, weakened mind. Each shot holds her patiently, calmly waiting for her to break while foreshadowing the inevitable disaster.

And then, one at a time, each member of the audience will recall the beginning of the film. It may happen as Murielle wanders the aisles of a nameless department store, out of place in her African dress. It may happen as she drives home, desperately singing along with the radio and giving in to the urge to weep. This realization, regardless of when it happens, is the final piece of Lafosse’s carefully arranged film. He counts on this relationship with his audience to ratchet up the tension of his finale, in which he need not shock outright. Rather, he simply holds his pace, waiting for us to fully recognize the grand tragedy before our eyes.

The Upside: Some of the year’s best performances, and a director who knows how to handle them.

The Downside: While its second half is a force to be reckoned with, some of the first hour of the film movies a bit too slowly.

On the Side: The film’s original title, “À perdre la raison,” directly translates as “To lose reason.” It sounds better in French.

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