In bringing to the screen potentially lurid, ripped-from-the-headlines material, Joachim Lafosse seems hellbent on avoiding any hint of sensationalism, maintaining an objective distance while keeping his story’s graphic details conspicuously off screen. If that makes Our Children, a fictionalization of a real-life story of a harried woman driven to desperate measures, seem occasionally too icily removed, the film compensates through its perpetual concern with understanding its characters and their untenable situations.
Introducing its protagonist, Murielle (Émilie Dequenne), in mid-hysterics after the death of her four children, the film then flashes back to a much happier moment: the blossoming love between the woman and her future husband, Mounir (Tahar Rahim). But things don’t remain joyous for the happy pair, as, over the course of the film, Lafosse slowly presents the circumstances that brought Murielle to the moment of despair glimpsed in the opening scene. Gradually unfolding what reveals itself as a very complex family dynamic, the film follows Murielle as she marries Mounir and movies in with him and his adoptive father, André Pinget (Niels Arestrup), a wealthy Belgian doctor who “rescued” Mounir from his native Morocco along with his sister years earlier and is now trying to arrange a marriage for his older brother so he can move to Europe as well. Along with first-world largesse, though, comes first-world privilege and, while André views himself as a benefactor, his controlling presence quickly becomes unbearable for Mounir and especially Murielle, all the more so as she gives birth to each successive child, a development presented in a rather startling series of ellipses.
Lafosse keeps his frequently handheld camera close to the characters, a sort of counterweight to his otherwise distant stance of objective observation. It’s as if he’s acknowledging both a desire to understand his characters and the impossibility of doing so. But in so far as he’s able to delineate Murielle, Mounir, and André’s states of mind, they’re smartly presented as a direct response to the social and political environment that shapes their lives in ways both direct and oblique.
On the road to tragedy, the story takes some interesting turns, not all equally successful in their dramatic impact. Driven crazy by André’s misplaced colonialist-benefactor stance, Murielle begins to identify with her husband’s home country to the point of wearing nothing but Moroccan garb. If this symbolic gesture seems like too obvious a maneuver on the part of the screenwriters, and if the film too often succumbs to an inevitable accumulative miserablism, Lafosse benefits by almost always keeping his characters at the center of the story. In the end, we may not know Murielle any more than we do her real-life counterpart, but we’ve at least been given intimate knowledge of the social dynamic that leads her inexorably to her final act of desperation.