Women live in a world of domineering men in several new releases, starting with the one that has received the most publicity of late, Paul Schrader’s “The Canyons.” In this dreary Bret Easton Ellis-scripted vision of bland Hollywood aspirants wasting their days chasing luxury, Lindsay Lohan portrays a somber victim of the urges forced on her by a twisted producer played with icy perversion by James Deen. While some critics have praised Lohan’s role for its haunted gaze and capacity for providing a meta commentary on fame, I found it as bland as the material. Amanda Seyfried fares only slightly better in the biopic “Lovelace,” opening next week, in which she embodies infamous porn star Linda coping with the sexual demands of her oppressive husband (a cartoonish Peter Sarsgaard). Seyfriend, at least, imbues Linda Lovelace’s fears and anguish with a credible edge.
However, both performances look downright amateur when compared with Émilie Dequenne’s heartbreaking turn in Joachim Lafosse’s “Our Children,” opening in limited release today. Inspired by a 2007 Belgium incident involving a woman who murdered her five children with a kitchen knife, Lafosse’s treatment of the material starts in the immediate aftermath of the traumatic incident and then slowly recounts the years of turmoil leading up to it. At its center is a seemingly cozy dynamic between young couple Murielle (Dequenne) and Mounir (Tahar Rahim), who lives with lifelong fatherly figure Doctor Pinget (Niels Arestrup).
When Murielle and Mounir get married, they continue to live with the doting Pinget as he gradually begins to pick apart the details of their lives together, discouraging them when they attempt to move away and continuing his role as familial overseer when the couple start to have children. While Mounir feels divided about pushing aside Pinget and prioritizing his family’s needs, Murielle grows increasingly powerless, shrinking into the claustrophobic boundaries of domesticity until her mental stability starts to fray.
Lafosse tracks these proceedings with handheld camerawork and other naturalistic touches that embolden the often mundane proceedings with a mounting sense of dread. Though it drags in parts, the movie’s pace ultimately creates an intimacy with Lafosse’s characters. His treatment of the material has the feel of a psychological crime scene investigation: Knowing the outcome, every seemingly minor exchange — for instance, Mounir curtly reminding Murielle not to complain about Pinget so long as they live under his roof — becomes a clue to the forces that led to her maniacal state.
While Rahim ably embodies a young careerist divided between a pair of allegiances, Dequenne’s fragile delivery and pale face foreground her mounting despair. It’s a phenomenally tragic encapsulation of domestication gone wrong. Her muted exchanges with relatives and a monotonous therapist at first sound whiny before they coalesce into an unanswered call for help. In the movie’s final scenes, her frayed look echoes Catherine Deneuve’s similar downward spiral in Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion.” In both movies, women are driven to murderous extremes by the physical and mental blockades forced on them.
In Murielle’s case, Lafosse argues that she never should have had children in the first place. When another child arrives unannounced, the couple simply continues to churn along with a mechanical routine as if they have no other option than to cope with the challenges of their family’s limited resources. Murielle’s despondent state is obvious to all but just beyond their reach. It’s impossible to watch “Our Children” without experiencing that conundrum and feeling the same wretched helplessness of its subjects.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? “Our Children” opens in New York today ahead of a Los Angeles release release next week and a national expansion further down the line. The dark subject matter may limit its box office prospects, but strong critical reactions (which began when the film played at Cannes) may help it manage some decent returns. It may also manage to stay in the conversation during awards season.