Some movies you don’t exit, you escape. You crawl out from underneath them, they’re so heavy and oppressive and immovably huge. “Our Children” is one such weighty mass. But instead of being a transformative, ultimately life-affirming experience, the way similarly bleak “Amour” and “Rust & Bone” are, “Our Children” is full of one-note grimness. Directed by Belgian film director Joachim LaFosse (“Nue Propriété,” “Élève libre“) there’s nothing to be gained from the experience, and is a grim drag in both content and form. By the time it reaches its semi-shocking conclusion, groans erupted from our audience and the squeaking of hastily exited chairs could be heard.
The opening frames of “Our Children” reveal four tiny coffins being loaded into an airplane. They’re followed by a shot of Murielle (Emilie Dequenne), who looks all beat up and who tells the unseen person at her bedside that she wants the kids to be buried in Morocco. It’s the worst bit of foreshadowing this side of Brian De Palma showing Al Pacino get shot at the beginning of the otherwise impeccable “Carlito’s Way.” In both instances the opening foreshadowing is clunky, inelegant, and unnecessary, but “Our Children” might be worse because the rest of the movie is so rigidly straightforward, with the narrative moving in one direction – straight ahead. So to have this weird little bit at the beginning that telegraphs the ending of the movie is worse than stupid, it actively damages the rest of the film, since the question of what happened to the children and mother lingers.
Initially, “Our Children” seems to follow a young couple who is wildly in love. Belgian Murielle falls in love with Moroccan Mounir (Tahar Rahim from “A Prophet“) and the two live together in the house of Mounir’s adoptive father (Niels Arestrup, his “A Prophet” co-star who always seems perennially sinister even when he’s playing someone big-hearted and kind). Murielle is a schoolteacher, while Mounir has trouble finding work; hence living in the house with an old man who seems to be little more, at least initially, to be a kind of Dickensian benefactor. But whatever great expectations Mounir might have, he doesn’t seem to show them, and the movie, forceful in its linear storytelling, propels us forward, jump cutting months or sometimes years in time, with little set-up or warning.
Sometimes this style works, as when they are discussing how the next baby is going to be a boy, followed immediately after by a nurse announcing the arrival of their baby girl, instead. It’s clever and funny (or at least as funny as this movie can imagine), and these jumps in time add to the already uneasy sensation of claustrophobia and mounting tension as the couple lives beyond their means, adding child after child and generous portions of anxiety and marital unease. It starts out as little things, Mounir raising his voice towards his wife and his caginess about his past in Morocco; then later the abuse becomes more heated and eventually physical. One chilling sequence involves Murielle coming to Mounir about finding out that she’s pregnant. She’s exhausted from the babies, something that has occurred, to the viewer, in a span of just a few minutes, which makes it seem even more daunting, and she suggests that maybe she get an abortion. He explodes at her and says that he will not allow it. It’s a shocking moment; the first of many.
And while a lot of emphasis has been placed on the relationship between the two men of the house, and how the older benefactor both seems to provide the family with stability and economic comfort, his presence also strangles the life out of the marriage. He’s always hovering just around the corner, ready to interject (whether asked for or not). At times he can be a godsend, able to help out with the kids and buy things that the family desperately needs, but without him, the couple would actually be able to work on their shit without some old dude lurking around. Mounir brings up the possibility of moving his family to Morocco, at which point the benefactor (who works as a local doctor) says that he must choose between him and his wife. The fact that Mounir chooses him says volumes.
But the movie really belongs to Dequenne. Her portrayal is spellbinding. In a way it’s a performance that’s similar to Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski‘s locked-door thriller “Repulsion” — we the audience are forced to watch a woman slip away from reality and into the deadly fog of depression. As the years flash forward, Murielle gets more tired and depressed, forced to leave work on medical leave (she starts to yell at students inappropriately) and give up the psychiatrist she’s leaned on. That opening sequence suggests a tragedy is inevitable, and her behavior hammers that point home. “Our Children” is a runaway freight train headed for calamity.
The problem is that, unlike “Repulsion,” “Our Children” just isn’t very good. While Dequenne’s performance is transfixing, it’s hard to get a grip on her as a character, especially since there isn’t a lot of background given about where she was before she met her soon-to-be-husband. Marriage saps the joy from a lot of relationships, and it’s easy to think back to the brilliant, bruising “Blue Valentine” and the way that the filmmakers flashed back and forth between the beginning and end of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams‘ marriage; the juxtaposition gave it extra emotional oomph and suggested the connection-making synapses of memory. “Our Children” ‘s steadfastness becomes a burden. There isn’t anything going on visually that merits much attention, either. The film trades in a blank grimness that isn’t emotionally involving as much as it is like watching some terrible accident you’re helpless to prevent. When the final moment comes and it’s revealed how the children died, it’s less of a surprise than a shrug. Drama robbed of suspense is just dull. [C-]