Belgium’s official entry for last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children (À perdre la raison, 2012) finally receives a UK theatrical release this week after premièring to critical acclaim in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Boasting two of contemporary French cinema’s heavyweights – Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim – plus a phenomenal lead performance from Émilie Dequenne (who first made her debut in the Dardenne brothers’ Palme d’Or-winning 1999 drama Rosetta) – Our Children is a shrewd and overwhelmingly powerful tragedy of Euripidean proportions.
An elliptical narrative sees Our Children open upon Dequenne’s Murielle in a hysterical state. The more observant of viewers will quickly piece together the source of her distress, yet like all great tragedies it’s the road to disaster that evokes the most agonising of reactions. Lafosse flashes back to a happier period in Murielle’s life, depicting her blossoming relationship with husband-to-be Mounir (Rahim), a young Moroccan given asylum thanks to his adoptive father, practising doctor André (Arestrup). The pair soon marry and moves into André’s house where they start a family together.
This intimate three-hander rapidly transforms from a touching portrayal of a caring family dynamic to a suffocating prison of dependency, duty and obligation, sowing the seeds that will ultimately bring Murielle to the state of inconsolable grief we briefly glimpse at the film’s opening. Adapting a true-life story that wouldn’t seem out of place on a tabloid front page, Lafosse does a remarkable job of avoiding any form of sensationalism, instead maintaining an objective perspective and focusing intently upon Murielle and the two men who dictate her life. Frequent use of handheld cameras and claustrophobic framing help amplify the stifling weight of Mounir and André’s unattainable expectations.
However, as technically accomplished as it undoubtedly is, it’s the film’s ménage à trois of spectacular performances that ultimately elevates Lafosse’s unconventional family drama into a far more convincing realm of authenticity. En route to its devastating conclusion, Our Children takes a few narrative diversions to examine issues of national identity in post-colonial North Africa, helping to add yet another layer to this engrossing tale. Yet, there’s little denying that it would have been interesting if Lafosse had concealed his film’s crushing end-game until the final few frames.
Despite this nagging afterthought, nothing – not even the knowledge of Murielle’s final terrible act of frustrated hopelessness – can prepare an audience for such a bold and distressing climax. A brilliantly crafted example of contemporary storytelling, Lafosse’s Our Children provides us an unique insight into a chillingly believable tale of scandal and subterfuge without ever succumbing to cheap, manipulative techniques – a fascinating character study that free-falls from the giddy heights of passion and romance to the crushing lows of anxiety and depression.