Tuesday, October 09, 2012

NYFF ’12: Our Children

An unlikely character to build a film around, she is based on Belgium’s Susan Smith.  Following the story of a woman who killed her children in the press, director-co-writer Joachim Lafosse was disturbed by the way she was inevitably demonized.  In response, the filmmaker finds sympathy for the desperate housewife in his fictionalized Our Children (trailer here), Belgium’s official submission for best foreign language Oscar consideration, which screens during the 50th New York Film Festival.

Mounir’s relationship with Dr. André Pinget is hard to define.  His boss and surrogate father technically really is his father, by marriage.  Years ago, Pinget married Mounir’s mother for immigration purposes, but she subsequently moved back to Morocco.  Pinget kept Mounir, as a son/sidekick.  When Mounir marries the Belgian Murielle against his advice, he welcomes her into the “family” and his home, but maintains his influence over Mounir.

For a while everything is great, especially with the doctor paying all the bills.  However, the combination of several young children in short succession and Mounir’s traditional notions of gender roles around the house (not exactly discouraged by Pinget) take a frightful toll on the woman.  Reduced to a pill-popping wreck, suddenly everything is her fault.

Lafosse succeeds in humanizing Murielle despite tip-toeing around the elephant in the room, Mounir’s Muslim perspective on home and hearth.  Strangely, she rather idealizes life in Morocco, prompting rebukes from both her husband and Pinget.  That would be no life for your daughters they warn her.  In effect, Lafosse presents her completely stressed-out without the benefit of adequate emotional support, rather than suggest she were the victim of a clash of cultures in her own family.

That gives Émilie Dequenne a steeper hill to climb, yet she still portrays Murielle’s slide into madness with remarkable power. The degree to which she physically manifests her mental disintegration is downright harrowing.  Even though the audience knows full well what unspeakable acts she will commit (eventually handled quite chillingly by Lafosse), one cannot help feel some measure of sympathy for her.

The film would not click together nearly so well without Niels Arestrup’s work as Pinget either.  Warm and jowly on the outside, he clearly projects something rather more unsettling underneath.  Many have likening his paternalism to colonialism and perhaps there is a kernel of truth to that, but he is also very much the controlling social worker or manipulative mother, who is always quick to bemoan “this is how you repay me after everything I’ve done for you” at the first sign of independent decision-making.  Yet, it is often hard to fathom the mindset of Tahar Rahim’s Mounir during all this, beyond his conspicuous self-centeredness.

Our Children is obviously a tough film to watch, but Lafosse keeps viewers locked in, masterfully using classical music and pop tunes to heighten the emotional angst.   While declining to address certain issues head-on, it is quite a showcase for Dequenne and Arestrup’s chops.  Recommended for those who appreciate challenging drama, Our Children screens this Friday (10/12) and Saturday (10/13) as a main slate selection of the 2012 NYFF.