Reviewed: Our Children by Joachim Lafosse

Tears for fears.

Our Children (15)
Joachim Lafosse

There can be few larger gulfs between marketing and product than the one that exists in the case of the new film Our Children. UK cinemagoers contemplating the poster image of a young woman and her smiling husband laden with adorable moppets would be forgiven for expecting to have their faith in familial love renewed. But then infanticide is such a hard sell, don’t you find? The movie gets straight to the point. Its second image is a wide shot of the tarmac on an airport runway. Four tiny, white coffins are being fed along a conveyor belt into the hold of a plane. From this distance, they might be sugar lumps or baby teeth.

The director and co-writer, Joachim Lafosse, employs two recurring visual devices throughout the film, both gently disorienting. The first is a sudden cut from a wide shot to a close-up, or vice versa, as though reminding us to appreciate the bigger picture (or the smaller one). No sooner are our eyes lulled by the procession of those faroff caskets than Lafosse jumps to a tight close-up of Murielle (Émilie Dequenne) and Mounir (Tahar Rahim) in an intimate embrace several years earlier. They are fabulously in love and blissfully unaware that their happiness exists only in flashback.

Lafosse’s other favourite device is to observe his actors with a handheld camera positioned slightly off to one side. Nothing radical about that, except that he takes special care to include in these shots the blurred edge of a door frame or lamp post to suggest that the cinematographer is shooting surreptitiously like a paparazzo or peeping Tom. There’s a reason for this. As one of the great philosophers of our age once put it, there are three people in this marriage. When Murielle agrees to live with Mounir, she is moving in also with his adoptive father, André (Niels Arestrup), a GP who is always there when he’s needed – and also when he isn’t. He provides money with invisible strings attached. When he coughs up for the couple’s honeymoon, Mounir invites him along too. André placates their first baby when Murielle cannot. Soon she finds she cannot gain a toehold with her own offspring. Or, it transpires, with her husband.

It looks at first as though Mounir, who yearns sentimentally for the Moroccan village where his mother and brother still live, will be the subject of the picture. The camera can certainly be excused for doting on Rahim, who played the scrawny convict maturing into a crime boss in A Prophet. With his Valentino handsomeness, inky black locks and lupine grin, he is part-lout, partmatinee idol. How inspiring to pair him again with Arestrup, who bullied and mentored him in A Prophet and performs some of the same duties here. Arestrup has off-white hair like a department-store Santa; his grizzled face is rigid with resentment. We know from Murielle’s first meeting with André that this will be an unequal fight.

Eventually the young woman is squeezed out of marriage and motherhood. The movie shifts its focus toward Murielle, as if in sympathy, as Mounir’s interest in her starts to wane. Dequenne can be an implacable tough-nut, as she proved in her debut performance at the age of 18 in the Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film Rosetta. In Our Children, she’s more haunted than hunted. Her feline eyes glow in her blunt hexagonal face; if Rachel Weisz had endured a life of chimneysweeping and coal-mining rather than Bulgari and L’Oréal contracts, she might look something like this. Dequenne makes Murielle sorrowful without pleading for our pity; she is simply a bright woman outsmarted by callous men.

Before the film’s inevitably distressing conclusion, which is based on real events, Dequenne is given the colossal task of visualising the exact point of Murielle’s breakdown. In an unbroken, three-and-a-halfminute take, she sings along to the radio as she drives, her melodious voice gradually sabotaged by sobs. Those of us who are forever citing Nicole Kidman’s tear-stained close-up in Birth as the ultimate example of wordless acting will now have to update our reference points.

Tahar Rahim and Émilie Dequenne in Our Children.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear