Our Children (2012)

Review first published on EyeforFilm.

This film will end with the death of four young children. It is no criminal spoiler to reveal this, as Our Children opens at its end: an anguished woman in hospital insists that Mounir be told they should be buried in Morocco, and then we see an older man gravely embracing a younger man in the hospital corridor, and four little coffins being loaded into the hold of an aircraft.

Everything that follows is told in sequential flashback, tracing the stifling bond between these three adults. The youthful, intense romance of Belgian Murielle (Émilie Dequenne) and Moroccan-born Mounir (Tahar Rahim) will lead to moving in together, a wedding and a brood of four children. There are, however, three people in this marriage – for Mounir’s adoptive father Dr André Pinguet (Niels Arestrup) is the couple’s chief benefactor and a constant, insidious presence in their daily lives.

Involved in a paper marriage with Mounir’s sister (and trying to arrange another such marriage of convenience between Mounir’s brother and Murielle’s sister), André owns the house where Murielle and Mounir live as well as the practice where Mounir works. He also joins the couple on their honeymoon – for which, as for nearly everything else, he pays – attends Murielle’s births, and resides permanently with them. All of which is fine by Mounir, whose strong sense of indebtedness to André might even conceal a different sort of relationship. Murielle, however, gradually crumbles under the claustrophobic pressures of this peculiar ménage à trois in which she, rather than André, appears to be the third wheel.

Underlying this bizarre domestic dynamic is a post-colonialist drama, with André seemingly addicted to his meddling, incestuous power over an extended African family, and unable to brook Murielle’s refusal to pay similar court to his controlling generosity. It is all very subtly played, with Arestrup and Rahim reprising (and utterly reorienting) their father-son relationship from Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009), and Dequenne’s Murielle driven into the role of Mad Woman in the Brussels Attic.

Joachim LaFosse’s film builds, inexorably, to an ending that we know from the start is coming – and yet the opening gambit, far from stripping the final scenes of their crude sensationalism, does exactly what movie spoilers tend to do, neutering the story’s final impact. Certainly the inevitability of an approaching event can produce great tension in tragedy – but here, those four dead children might better have come unheralded, with Murielle a surprise Medea rather than a pre-destined anti-heroine enacting a mere fait accompli.

Anton Bitel