Belgian director Joachim Lafosse seems to lay all of his cards on the table in the opening moments of his fifth feature, Our Children (2012). The action commences with a plaintive Murielle (an award-winning Émilie Dequenne) asking from a hospital bed for her children to be buried in Morocco, before four tiny coffins are seen being loaded onto a plane. Giving away its ending like that may seem a dangerous gambit, but since its inception in ancient Athens, tragic drama has always been about watching the lamentable decline of a protagonist whose sorrowful fate is already known to an informed audience.
The impact of this devastating finale is in no way undermined by a knowledge of the ultimate conclusion. No sooner are we aware of what awaits than Jean-François Hensgens’ intimate camerawork is concerning itself with the initially flushes of passion between a vivacious young Murielle and Moroccan immigrant Mounir (Tahar Rahim). When she agrees to marry him, little does Murielle know that their relationship will have a third member in the form of Mounir’s adopted father, the kindly Dr. Pinget (Niels Arestrup). Providing them with substantial financial support, they find themselves living in the affluent family doctor’s apartment. However, Murielle has started to succumb to the doctor’s brand of control.
Arestrup (A Prophet, War Horse) is on excellent form as the insidiously manipulative Pinget, putting Murielle down with off-handed comments and slowly poisoning Mounir’s mind against his wife. Rahim (A Prophet, Free Men), in another fine display, is a well-balanced blend of his own man, and his guardian’s unsuspecting pawn. Topping off a trio of superb performances is the pick of the bunch, Dequenne providing an emotionally complex turn in a role that could well have descended into hysterics or become too morose and lost the empathy of the audience entirely. As it is, Lafosse’s Our Children is near impossible to turn away from.
The shifts in, and plays for, power are utterly compelling and the film remains incredibly tense despite knowledge of what is to pass. There are moments of mortifying dramatic irony, but as Murielle is suffocated by Pinget’s possessive nature, and Hensgens’ camera creates a claustrophobia, it is the atmosphere of impending tragedy that truly knots the stomach. The fact that there’s no release means that Lafosse’s drama may well leave some feeling cold, but this is an exceptional study of psychological torture with three fantastic headline performances. It’s not where Our Children is going, but the excruciating journey towards it.