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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How Ken Loach's radical vision won him a second Palm d'Or

In Loach's films, authenticity is everything, and when his quest for realism pays off, there's nothing as raw in all of cinema.

On 22 May, at the age of 79, Ken Loach became the first British director to win the top prize twice at the Cannes Film Festival. His previous Palme d’Or, in 2006, was for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, which dramatised the British occupation of Ireland and the origins of the IRA. This time, he won for I, Daniel Blake, the story of an ailing carpenter wrongly declared fit for work by the callous UK benefits system. No wonder Ed Vaizey, the culture minister, could issue only the most grudging acknowledgement, alluding vaguely to “Brit success!” in a tweet that failed to mention either Loach or the film.

The actor and Cannes jury member Donald Sutherland, on the other hand, called I, Daniel Blake “an absolutely terrific movie that resonates in your heart and soul”. It was an incongruous delight to see Loach posing before swarms of paparazzi. He usually disdains such frivolities; he might be red but he’s hardly red carpet. “As a film-maker, you’re forever involved in things that constantly inflate their own importance,” he once complained. Artifice, hyperbole and celebrity hold no appeal. Even film-making itself is full of irritating impediments. “If Loach could make a film without a camera, he would,” said Trevor Griffiths, who collaborated with him on Fatherland (1986).

Authenticity is everything. Unusually, Loach shoots in sequence, even if it requires moving back and forth at great cost between locations. In the days of celluloid, he would forfeit much of his fee to buy more film stock so that his beloved improvisations could roll on and on. When I visited the set of Carla’s Song near Loch Lomond in 1995, Loach gave the actor Robert Carlyle a good-natured ticking off for speaking to me between takes. “I’d rather he didn’t talk to anyone,” he said, “because then he’ll start thinking about things in terms of technique and who he really is, and it’ll all become conscious.”

When the quest for realism pays off, there is nothing as raw in all cinema. Think of the chilling attack on a family home by loan sharks in his 1993 drama Raining Stones, one of the films that began his most successful period, or the climax of Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC in 1966 and arguably his most groundbreaking film. As Cathy (Carol White) has her children taken off her by social workers and police, Loach films the entire traumatic episode in a wide shot with a hidden camera to preserve the reality. The movie led directly to the founding of Crisis.

Conversely, Loach at his worst can be one of the most simplistic sentimentalists out there. The characterisation of the salt-of-the-earth heroes in recent films such as Jimmy’s Hall and Route Irish, or the pantomime-villain Brits in The Wind That Shakes the Barley, shows what happens when action is overpowered by agenda.

Born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, Loach read law at Oxford but became seduced by theatre directing and acting: he was in a revue for which Dudley Moore composed the music, and understudied in the West End in One Over the Eight. He joined the BBC in 1963, where he brought extra earthiness to Z-Cars before finding his ideal outlet in The Wednesday Play slot that went out after the news. “We were very anxious for our plays not to be considered dramas but as continuations of the news,” he said. He made ten TV films under that banner but it was with his second movie, Kes, in 1969, that he took flight, proving that the gritty and the lyrical need not be mutually exclusive.

His politics was fully formed by this point. Though he has rejected claims that he is Marxist or Trotskyist, he admits that the analysis to which he turned after his disillusionment with Harold Wilson in the mid-1960s was a Marxist one. “The idea of a class analysis was the one we identified with,” he said of himself and his collaborators the producer Tony Garnett and the writer Jim Allen. “What we realised was that social democrats and Labour politicians were simply acting on behalf of the ruling class, protecting the interests of capital.”

This stance was consolidated by a series of run-ins in the 1980s, when he saw his work banned and thwarted by political forces. The transmission of his four-part 1983 television documentary Questions of Leadership, which asked whether the trade union leadership was adequately representing its members’ interests, was delayed and blocked by Labour string-pulling. Which Side Are You On? – a documentary about the miners’ strike – was rejected because of footage showing police violence.

Since his full-time return to cinema in the early 1990s, acclaim has eclipsed controversy. Even if he had not won a Palme d’Or, his stamp is all over other directors who have won that award in the past 20 years. The Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Rosetta, The Child) have never hidden their debt to him, while recent winners such as Jacques Audiard (Dheepan) and Cristian Mingiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) exhibit his mixture of directness, compassion and realism.

If there is anything that defines him, it is his fight, which has made it possible for him to remain one of cinema’s angriest and most effective voices. “In the long term, I guess I’m optimistic because people always fight back,” he said. “The reason to make films is just to let people express that, to share that kind of resilience because that’s what makes you smile. It’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

“I, Daniel Blake” is released later this year

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 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad