NYFF REVIEW: ‘Our Children’ (2012)

Grade: A-

The poster for Our Children features a smiling Tahar Rahim and Emilie Dequenne in loving embrace, which quite tellingly shows up close to the start of the film. It makes the film seem like a much cheerier affair than it turns out to be. That’s rather much of what I feared going into it, is that it would take a pleasant route in diagnosing the dysfunctions of an odd familial situation. That is discounted by the very first moments of the film, which all but give away the ending destination before we’ve even met the players. That is a very tough feat to pull off, so Our Children had its work cut out for itself to earn our devastation regarding its brutal conclusion.

The film follows Mounir and Murielle, a couple in the throes of fresh love who decide they want to marry and have children. Their aided along the way by Mounir’s adoptive father Andre Pinget, whom offers them their home to raise their family in. It seems like such a perfect family setup, and even Murielle’s gossipy sister pokes embarrassing fun at the oddness of it. The film progresses at an unsympathetic pace, adding on children to their clan with reckless abandon and further complicating the situation with each new addition. However, it’s the first addition that remains the most crucial and trying.

Dequenne’s Murielle isn’t given instant billing in the audience sympathetic slot, with any of the three protagonists offering a potential conduit for the narrative. Tahar Rahim, who has dabbled in smaller works since his outstanding debut in A Prophet, at first makes the case for Mounir. He is the one whom all family connections flow through, but Mounir becomes more self-centered and frustrated with the responsibility of his circumstances as the children ratchet up. In a way he’s been duped from a life of happiness into this vacuum where things never change.

Niels Arestrup has highest name billing, perhaps because of his outsider’s status to the main couple. One wonders for some time if Pinget will be the main catalyst for collapse, welcoming these people into his house without receiving anything in return. As it turns out, he gets quite a bit in return for the time and money he puts into this family. He goes from being a kindhearted individual to becoming a rather manipulative and intimidating figure. He’s essentially the godfather over all, keeping them planted in his country under his roof.

At the start of the film, Murielle is happy simply to be included. Getting married to the one you love is a joyful thing, but there’s a reason people usually freak out before the ceremony. It’s what comes after that’s the real sacrifice. It’s not as simple as the rigors of parenthood driving her to such isolated desperation. It’s the close proximity with this ever-expanding family, all while these two men scold her for putting in so much effort to care about their children. Emilie Dequenne really gets the audience to buy into her as a sympathetic protagonist and not an absolute monster. The act she commits towards the end is coming like a bullet train, but it’s this claustrophobic situation that brings her to the edge, and Dequenne’s ever-contorted expression cuts as deep as the sharpest dagger.

Just as Fill the Void makes the case for marriage as an essential familial glue, Our Children cuts the act down a peg or twenty. The typical joy shown at the start is mocked increasingly by the later progressions of the film. This symbolic act is sized down to being little more than a paper contract you can’t rescind. It’s quite a bold statement for a film to make, to make marriage and family life into such a suffocating vacuum. Every new child serves to give the audience a slight chuckle, but each new one is a massive toll on one’s sanity, and certainly that of Murielle. The film’s original title was Loving Without Reason, which eloquently puts Lafosse’s feelings on marriage in this film into perspective.

The film isn’t dramatically over-styled, instead using its cinematic properties as further walls for the characters to barge into. The house they live in seems to shrink around them, with not even room enough to fit the entire frame. It creates a pressurized container for Murielle and the audiences, and it makes the experience an increasingly intense one. The final twenty minutes of the film are nearly impossible to watch, not on merit of visual disgust but implicit tragedy. And that’s all from a plot circumstance revealed in the first two minutes of the film. Our Children swirls you around in its damaging melodrama before spitting you out the other side. The only crucial element the film lacked was a person to greet me with a hug as I exited the film.

Bottom Line: Not cheerful by half, Our Children conveys brutal intensity through torturous intimacy and Emilie Dequenne’s devastatingly hollowed out expression.

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