The knowledge this gut-wrenching Belgian drama is based on a true story makes Our Children all the more painful to watch. It’s worth it for an uncompromising look at a marriage strained to the limit by traditional values, and for the breathtaking lead performance from Emilie Dequenne.
Rosetta star Dequenne, who scooped her second best actress award at Cannes last year in the Un Certain Regard category, is staggeringly brilliant as Murielle, a school teacher married to Moroccan immigrant Mounir (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim, always excellent). The film begins with a choked Murielle in a hospital bed, whispering that ‘they’ should be buried in Morocco. The image of four small white coffins being loaded on to a plane means the film is drenched in a dreadful inevitability.
Cut to a young, happy and vibrant Murielle, passionately in love with Mounir and making plans for a life together. However, Mounir lives with Doctor Pinget (Rahim’s Prophet co-star Niels Arestrup) in an unorthodox arrangement with complexities that haunt the couple. Pinget is actually Mounir’s brother-in-law in a marriage of convenience, with many of the Moroccan’s family desperate to follow suit. Pinget is dismissive of Mounir’s affections for Murielle, and of the young man’s own career ambitions and desire to flee the nest, exerting a powerful hold over the family.
As the family increases (Mounir’s desire for a boy is clear), Murielle grows increasingly strained by the oppressive living arrangements. Unable to breathe, the worn-out Murielle has a reprieve in psychiatric sessions and visits to and from Mounir’s loving and sympathetic mother in Morocco - scenes that are achingly sad, as Dequenne portrays the weight lifting. These moments of happiness are fleeting as the tremendously sympathetic Dequenne dominates the film with Murielle’s disintegrating mental state.
Director Joachim Lafosse (Private Property) has created a fragile, sensitive film which showcases his astonishing star. In one heart-stopping scene he films her singing along to Julien Clerc whilst driving, desperately craving some understanding, before breaking down in tears. The moments of joy - a gift from Mounir’s mother, her child’s school play - being used by Pinget to break her down and belittle her. Gender politics rather than religion is used as the greatest weapon against the vulnerable Murielle - she is liberated in Morocco.
Gorgeous, intimate photography and the living, breathing, worn-out naturalism of the locations help make the tragic Our Children an engrossing watch. Unmissable for probably the greatest performance by an actress you will see this year.