Extra Interview: Our Children Director Joachim Lafosse
The Private Property helmer on his powerful new drama.
With Our Children in cinemas 10th May, we can finally bring you an interview conducted with writer-director Joachim Lafosse during the London Film Festival.
Belgian filmmaker Lafosse (Private Property), speaking partly through an interpreter, was keen to discuss his strong views on making a film of the tragic true story of a mother who murdered her young children. Emilie Dequenne gives an award-winning and stunning performance as the fictionalised Muriuelle, a Belgian school teacher who falls in love with Moroccan immigrant Mounir (A Prophet star Tahar Rahim). As the happy married couple start a family, the strain of living with Mounir's brother-in-law, father figure and wealthy benefactor Doctor Pinget (Niels Arestrup) begins to stifle Murielle, leading to tragedy. Read our full review here.
We spoke to Lafosse during a round table interview in a London hotel.
The cultural differences in this film are not emphasised, and in fact, Murielle finds solace with Mounir's mother in Morocco. Can you talk about that?
I liked to shoot this story, to watch the mix between two cultures, without prejudice. For example, for me the racist is the doctor. When he says it's not possible to take the children to Morocco, to give education to your daughter - I know a lot of Moroccan women with freedom! I liked to shoot the happiness of Murielle in Morocco. The relationship between the women said a lot about the relationship Murielle has with her own mother. But I refuse to give the biography of the characters at the beginning. I began the writing with Mounir, as it's the saddest situation. He was not able to choose, he was stuck. The conflict he has, he's torn between his wife and his protector, it's too huge to be able to choose. It's this impossibility that leads to tragedy. She rebels. This movie is also a perfect way to speak about patriarchy and neocolonialism [laughs]. The doctor creates a perverse link - everybody receives a gift they would like to refuse, because we know it's more expensive than we can imagine. That's why it's my passion to make the spectator vigilant, and take them out of their belief. Love can become dangerous when you lose this vigilance and you fall into belief.
What discussions did you have with your cinematographer about the look of the film?
As the story of a young woman begins, we discover the young boy is a stronger couple with the man than his lover. We know that we are obliged to provoke a feeling for the audience, and you begin to see it's not possible to have a private place, or intimacy. All the time, someone is watching. We decide to shoot often on the edges of doors and windows. We decided to do that, as in the great family tragedies, you're always asked to choose between mum or dad - what I prefer is that the viewer is an observer, asking themselves how? By using frames and doors, this reminds you that you're a spectator. Not a voyeur, because you've paid, you're not hiding. That was very important. One thing that was important from the beginning of the writing was never to film the murder of the children. Two things that really scared me a lot before shooting were working with children under five, and succeeding in filming these children not as objects. I see too many films where children are like circus animals - in and out a frame quickly. These little girls should exist as much as the other actors. Time management scared me, how to tell a story about four pregnancies without getting boring!
[The rest of the round table interview below.]
What is the message of the film to the viewer?
The first reason I did the movie, is because when people say 'that's a monster' I refuse that. For me it's horrible, it's not possible. In fact, when I heard the real facts in my car, I heard the journalist say his wife was a monster. I discussed this with my scriptwriters, maybe we can do a movie which can think about the reason why a woman would do that. It's important for me to say that cinema is never the truth. Today, the cinema sells the film as saying it's the truth about a story. There's the truth by law, you have the journalistic integrity, and you have the artist's work. My job is not to say the truth; it's very important to protect the people in that story, to say it's not the truth. I changed her name, and I said all the time it's my fiction. It's like when Flaubert said 'Madame Bovary is me'. Murielle is me. I refuse to answer the question, 'what's true in your movie?' To be a good scriptwriter, sometimes it's important to understand reality is often better fiction than fiction. Legally, we have to put the film is based on a true story but not trying to reproduce it, but I refused to put that at the beginning of the movie.
This story is the perfect tragic situation - people want love, Murielle and Mounir accept the gifts from the doctor. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that's my obsession, with the movie before, and the movie after; the moral question of good and evil. If evil came only from bad intentions, everyone would be fine. This generosity, kindness, goodness, creates a perverse link. I like to propose a movie where the audience begins to be vigilant, because often cinema requires you to be a believer. For me, God is that. It's not necessary to replace God with cinema. I'm trying to make films in which the spectator can be moved, but not moved in an emotional way by being totally invaded by the populist feeling.
You structured the movie so it's on a downward course - are you worried it might be too depressing?
With this story it's not possible to work just with suspense. If you work just with suspense it's vulgar, which is disgusting. Which is why I prefer to give the end at the beginning - it's honest. When you are honest, you give more for the audience than the characters. I like it when the spectator asks, what would I do? Would I accept this honeymoon, this job, this house, or would I refuse it? By giving the end at the beginning, I then provoke the question in the spectator, how could a mother end up doing this act? The other thing we decided the first day of the writing, not to see the process of this woman, the trial, and the jury see the scene of the crime in the courtroom. After, they decide to sentence this woman to life. Because it's not possible to think when you see what they see. If I give you in my movie the killing of the children, it's not possible to think poor woman. You're manipulated. I decided we wouldn't see this woman as a monster. It's not the killing of the children that put me in this movie. I wanted to make this film as it's essential to show today the importance of autonomy, independence and freedom. Mounir is not free, Murielle is not free, and neither is Andre actually, because he thinks he can only exist through giving. Nowadays, you can see in women's magazines it's so easy to become a mum while also a businesswoman and a rockstar or whatever. I say it's very important to pay attention to the nature of the man and the nature of the woman.
How much credit must go to Emilie Dequenne for making Murielle so empathetic?
At the beginning of the preparation I spoke to her about the script, and she spoke to me about her life. Quickly, I said to her, okay, I would like it if we don't speak too much. Because when an actor speaks too much to a director about their lives, quickly the actors are afraid to be judged by the director. That's why you sometimes don't choose to speak with your best friends. I preferred to say to Emilie, let's preserve this distance and modesty, and you go to a specialist psychiatrist, a specialist in post-natal depression. She went to the surgery for three weeks, and after the shooting, Emilie said I made a good decision. The day I heard this story and decided to do this movie, more than five years ago, I went to a psychoanalyst three times a week. Each session of analysis for five years, I spoke about this story. If you ask deeply about such a story, you get taken in. I'm really glad I became a father before making this film, because I wouldn't have understood the long nights and the tiredness. It's important also that the psychoanalyst helped Emilie. She was afraid to work with them, and Niels, who is very hard and impressive. We shot the sequence in the car when she sings, and when I see that, I realise we are good. For example, I work for the preparation with the child, but two weeks before I ask Emilie to stay on the set with the child as a real mother, so that's the only woman to speak with the child on the set. We organise a lot of things really precise - I asked the crew never to speak to the child.
You did an earlier film when the father killed his son. You've made two films about infanticide, which is a taboo subject. Why do you go back to this subject?
In the first case, it's a story about suicide, not a crime against children. In both sides it's a story about people who can't be separated from their children. I don't film neurosis, I film psychosis. I can say that having worked on these subjects for so many years, it's made me more attentive to the desire of the people who surround me. So if a father is just a father, a mother just a mother, it's the drama of people who are just one thing now. But for the next, I'm happy as I've stopped filming families. I will make a movie about a group of fifteen people. But the subject stays the same - the road to hell is paved with good intentions. A group of people who help orphans in Africa, and lose the reason. It's a case, not Noah's Ark, Zoe's Ark - a true case. [The people involved were recently sentenced - read more here.]