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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred