Letting things go too far
Our Children/À perdre la raison, starring Émile Duquesne, Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup is the slow-burning story of a family that gradually descends into hell. Elements of colonialism, gender roles, and psychological conflict are blended in a screenplay freely based on a news story from Lafosse’s native Belgium known as “L’Affaire Geneviève Lhermitte.” Viewers can debate what actually happens, but the trouble all begins when a wealthy doctor raises a young Moroccan, who falls in love and marries, and the couple live with him as his dependents. Lafosse seems to trade in unhealthy relationships and adults who are irresponsible. That was the case in Private Property, in which Isabelle Huppert is a mother more interested in affairs than raising her sons, and in Private Lessons, where thirty-somethings become unnaturally close to an adolescent boy whom they teach about sex. In fact having seen these two films helps one understand what’s going on in All the Children. Lafosse is interested in boundaries, and what results when they’re not respected or properly established within a claustrophobic hothouse environment. He takes his time with this one. It’s interesting to see Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim, who played the Corsican mafia boss and his Moghrebin prison prottégé in Audiard’s A prophet, back together again in a very different father-son relationship as the Belgian doctor and his boyish Moroccan immigrant dependent. For the initially vibrant young woman Rahim’s character marries, who deteriorates in a situation that destroys her self-worth, Lafosse chose Émilie Duquenne, the Cannes award-winner from the Dardenne brother’s Rosetta, who is the one who brings the drama to its muted but disturbing climax.
The film begins with four small coffins shipped to Morocco, so we know what happens, but for most of the time that is not thought of, though Morocco is a constant indirect presence. Mounir (Rahim) is like a pampered adopted son to André Pinget, the doctor who has raised him at his home. But as the action gets started Mounir has just failed a medical training program, and André takes him into his office as a kind of secretary. This weakness on the part of the young man, and the older man’s affectionate and protective relationship with him, leads to Mounir’s inevitably staying on with André even after he marries Murielle (Duquesne), a schoolteacher. And then the children begin, one after another in rapid succession, three girls and finally a boy. The doctor shares intimately in raising them, but that’s where for the mother things become claustrophobic and over-stressful.
The three main actors are fine, and Lafosse’s scenes count not so much for what happens as for the atmosphere and the gradual feeling about the situation, a smile, a hug, a moment of congratulation that feels off. It’s cozy and nice, full of affection. André is so cloyingly generous he gives the baby and Murielle jewelry and Mounir a valuable watch when it’s born. Rahim, the innocent protégé who becomes a powerful boss in A Prophet, seems spoiled and weak here, but also sweet, innocent, and happy. Murielle is harder to figure out. Eventually she will crumble, and her final deterioration comes through Morocco, which is also where André shows his dominance and colonialism. After moving to a house, which Mounir is given major ownership of but André also lives in, Murielle feels just as stifled. The doctor is even Murielle’s primary care physician. It seems the “our” in “our children” means André’s and Mounir’s. Slowly there are hints of nastiness from André. Murielle and Mounir want to be independent of him, but however they may try to do it, they can’t risk André’s threat of cutting them off completely. It’s a situation that Mounir always thrived on. But Murielle is psychologically fragile. From since the time when her negligence causes one of their young children to fall down some stairs, she has a morbid fear of harming them. After the living situation becomes oppressive she deteriorates mentally, taking a leave from teaching and having trouble dealing with the kids.
Lafosse obviously wants to take on various topics, the status of immigrants in Belgium, how many kids one should have, the risk of non-traditional families, the treatment of mental problems. There is no one explanation in the film for Murielle’s decline or for her tragic action, but contributing factors obviously are the claustrophobic living situation, the pressures of raising four small children at once, her husband’s and her nebulous status, and André’s controlling tendencies. Or she may just be inherently unstable. (It’s all pulled together by recurring music from Scarlatti’s operas, at once comforting and haunting.) What’s interesting is the way Lafosse shows the slightly strange dynamics of the household, the push and pull between the doctor’s kindness and his will to dominate. This is where the director excels. In this more multi-layered narrative, he proves not so good a storyteller, even with the collaboration of Thomas Bidegain of A Prophet. However this is a richer film than the previous ones, glossier, more complex, covering a period of years, and with a powerhouse cast; hence this new film is a real step forward for a director who’s building up a coherent body of work but so far has not been known in the US.
After debuting in the Un Certain Regard series at Cannes in May 2012, Our Children/À perdre la raison opened in Paris in August, to generally good reviews (Allociné critics rating: 3.7). its first American appearance is in the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review.
Director: Joachim Lafosse
Stars: Niels Arestrup, Tahar Rahim, Émilie Dequenne
Runtime: 111 min