Scandal Free

in 24th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Malwina Grochowska

Our Children (À perdre la raison) is based on a tragic event, which happened in Belgium a few years ago and made headlines in the local as well as the European press. However, the film is not a simple journalistic account; in fact, Joachim Lafosse’s deeply empathetic approach to his characters couldn’t be further from the one usually taken in such cases by the mass media.

The consequences of the crime are revealed in the first sequence: a woman, devastated, lies in bed while Haydn’s Stabat Mater can be heard. She asks somebody to bury “them” in Morocco. Then there are coffins being loaded onto an airplane. To be precise, four little coffins.

By beginning at the end, Lafosse, together with his co-writer Thomas Bidegain and Matthieu Reynaert, doesn’t allow the viewer any distancing from the horror. It doesn’t leave us wondering if something terrible will happen. The only question, for those viewers not familiar with the real turn of the events, is how. By arranging the chronology in much the same way that Michael Haneke did it in Amour, Lafosse seems to be saying that the tragedy, although unbelievable, was also unavoidable.

Unlike the media coverage of the shocking infanticide that inspired the film, in Our Children the audience doesn’t learn the unbearable truth about the killer’s identity until very late in the narrative. So the viewer has a chance to follow the heroine through her journey, without making an easy judgment before knowing the whole background.

That narrative develops with precise detail. A young couple in love, Murielle (Emilie Dequenne) and Mounir (Tahar Rahim), cherish their time together. They decide to get married – perhaps too quickly, judging from the reactions of those close to them. At first, everything seems to go well. Mounir, who was born in Morocco, gets a lot of support from André (Niels Arestrup), a wealthy doctor, who is apparently his adoptive father. André showers Mounir with gifts and favors, including a job at his medical practice and a honeymoon trip as a generous wedding gift.

But as time goes on there are hints that maybe not everything is perfect. Did Mounir want to get married in order to get Belgian citizenship papers? Is his Arab upbringing a reason the marriage is not working out? And is André not just a supportive father figure, but a toxic third “member” of the family? There are a lot of similar questions raised as the film progresses and the relations between all three main characters remain open to interpretation. Until the end, there are more hints than facts.

Never is too much directly stated, which gives the impression of overhearing a private conversation rather than watching staged situations. Still, the story progresses inevitably toward the conclusion defined in the first scene. Lafosse incorporates a lot of information about the actual case as reported in the press, changing just a few details, such as the age of the couple and the children. But it does not exploit the characters or sensationalize their circumstances into a lurid scandal; rather, it draws an (extended) family portrait.

The performances of the three main actors contribute greatly to the film’s realism and emotional impact. Rahim, playing a much different character than his acclaimed role in A Prophet (Un prophète), embodies the ambiguous type. He’s handsome, likeable, and a little bit suspect at the same time. Arestrup’s role draws on a similar duality; there’s a hidden layer of his personality under the “cultured gentleman” surface.

And last but not least there’s the wonderful Emilie Dequenne as the mother, gradually plunging into an emotional vacuum and physical exhaustion. Dequenne’s face, body, and posture change considerably as Murielle transforms from a happy fiancée to a mother trapped in situation she can’t escape. She evokes the misery of depression not only in the way she talks and moves, but in every facial muscle. This nuanced performance perfectly fits Lafosse’s artistic strategy in Our Children: a portrait in shades of grey that confronts the viewer with the ultimate tragedy, with no easy answers.

Edited by Peter Keough