Can a story be too emotional? Too powerful? Too overwhelming? These questions come to mind when watching this Belgian drama – based on tragic real events. It’s no spoiler to say that ‘Our Children’ tells the story of a mother in a town near Brussels who, in 2007, killed her five children. The story reveals several tiny coffins right at the start, before looping back to consider what could cause (as the French title, ‘A Perdre la Raison’, suggests) such ‘loss of reason’.
But before you accuse writer-director Joachim Lafosse of giving the game away, give him credit for balancing reflective analysis and boundless grief. His choices make it plain he’s not out for mere button-pushing emotional impact. Instead, he sets out to examine the whys and wherefores of this tale.
The result is a filmmaking masterclass, although far from comfortable viewing. Lafosse’s previous feature, ‘Private Property’, examined the toxic influence of inheritance and ownership on family relationships. Here, too, he gets right to the heart of the problems pushing troubled mum Murielle (Emilie Dequenne) to such awful extremes.
The pursuit of domestic bliss becomes a nightmare as Murielle, her children (four in this version) and her Moroccan immigrant husband Mounir (Tahar Rahim) become stuck under the same roof as the latter’s seemingly generous benefactor, a doctor played by Niels Arestrup. Rahim and Arestrup starred together in 2009’s ‘A Prophet’. This time, Rahim is a would-be provider excluded from his role by his quietly spoken host, whose financial muscle effects a controlling compassion that insidiously reminds his guests of their ethnic, class and cultural inferiority.
Lafosse’s low-key direction is intimate enough to feel we’re getting inside access, yet also reserved enough to reveal the ongoing ramifications of events. It’s a film full of ambition, yet it avoids the self-importance of, say, a Michael Haneke film, by getting us so close to the characters’ feelings that it never comes over as some dry thematic diagram. A case in point is the extended single-take, bound for arthouse immortality, in which Dequenne bawls her way through Julien Clerc’s power-ballad ‘Femmes Je Vous Aime’ – a near-feral expression of depthless pain, yet pointedly couched in a lyric that’s full of alpha-male possessiveness.
So raw it’s almost unbearable, this cri de coeur also points ominously to what’s to come. The climactic scenes are so brilliantly realised that harrowing emotion and saddened understanding are expertly balanced.