Belgium’s 2012 Oscar entry “Our Children,” directed by Joachim Lafosse, is based on real events that took place in a Brussels suburb in 2007, where a woman systematically murdered her children with a kitchen knife. It spans six or seven years, starting from the happy honeymoon between schoolteacher Murielle (Émilie Dequenne) and Mounir (Tahar Rahim, “A Prophet”), through the birth of their four children and the increasingly strained tension in their marriage, to the killings. This isn’t a spoiler — the film, told in flashback, begins with a shot of four small coffins being loaded into a plane’s cargo hold.
In some ways Murielle and Mounir have a typical romance, beginning with starry eyes, dopey grins and complete willingness to give themselves to one another. But in one crucial way their relationship and marriage differs from others. Mounir is inextricably tied to Dr. André Pinget (Niels Arestrup), a seemingly selfless older man who at one point agreed to a paper marriage to Mounir’s sister in order to get both her and Mounir legal citizenship in Belgium from their native country, Morocco. After Mounir proposes to Murielle, he excitedly tells her that the doctor will allow them to live in his spacious apartment with him, which she agrees to without qualms. The couple also invites André on their honeymoon, as he is financing it, and Mounir soon thereafter begins a career working in the doctor’s practice.
This intense closeness and financial dependence should be a red flag, but for the first couple of years, economically edited in the film, Murielle and Mounir are too in love to notice their foreboding situation. There are very few scenes in which Murielle and Mounir are without the doctor — or, as the film goes on, without one of their children — and Lafosse composes his shots often with a doorframe in the right or left foreground, suggesting an environment that is closing in on its characters.
Or Murielle, specifically. The director takes care to make her sympathetic, to illustrate a situation in which a woman could become so devastatingly detached from reality that she commits the unthinkable, but without giving her excuse or pardon. Dequenne, who won the Un Certain Regard Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance, nimbly embodies the difficult role. Her transition from warm, nurturing schoolteacher to tired, battered spouse, and finally mother on the verge of a murderous breakdown, is seamless and believable.
A brilliant detail is added in the final twenty minutes of the film: Murielle insists on wearing a pale blue djellaba Mounir’s mother gave her as a present. She floats around in the shapeless shift everywhere –to the airport, to the doctor’s office, to the grocery store, where she steals the carving knife — with an upsettingly serene expression. She’s already walking among ghosts, and it’s only a matter of time before she brings others with her.
But what is it that drives Murielle to such an atrocious act? Lafosse doesn’t pretend to have answers, but he does present her in an environment disturbingly ambivalent to women. Mounir and André are disappointed by the baby girls Murielle continues to produce, and have little appreciation for the daily strain of childrearing, the brunt of which they heap on her while harboring resentment when she makes mistakes.
“Don’t worry about Murielle,” André tells Mounir as they soak up steam together in a sauna, and as the former encourages the latter to decamp for a couple of weeks to Morocco. Arestrup is particularly good as André, portraying the doctor as both malevolent godfather and lonely benefactor. In Mounir he’s found a son (and possibly something else), and Murielle is, in his eyes and his home, the third wheel who becomes intolerable as she begins to wish for an independent life.
Family is at the center of “Our Children,” and all the irrevocable complications that can arise within the family structure — people grow unhappy, become jealous, feel threatened and lose themselves. In the Murielle-Mounir-André triangle, Lafosse creates a portrait of a nuclear family that has one too many members. Three’s a crowd, and in this case, disrupts an unspoken order. It takes a woman’s sanity, and she in turn horrifically takes four innocents.
“Our Children” hits theaters August 2, via DistriB Films.