Synopsis: Ever since he was a boy, Mounir (Tahar Rahim) has lived with a doctor (Niels Arestrup) who has provided him with a comfortable life. But when Mounir decides to marry his partner, Murielle (Émilie Dequenne) the couple’s dependence on the doctor becomes excessive and the situation soon becomes untenable...
High-class attempt never takes off.
the film, for the most part, lacks the kind of dramatic incident that might have lifted it from the slough of despond
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Viewers wanting to avoid learning the ending of this downer of a Belgian family drama would be best advised to avoid reading the synopsis on the Melbourne Film Festival website. The first sentence is a plot ‘spoiler’ of unusually blunt proportions.
While it’s arguable the opening scene, where a woman in a hospital bed asks for some people she refers to as “them” to be buried in Morocco, points to at least some of what is to follow, it’s also vague enough to leave room for speculation.
For much of its length Our Children is a domestic story of major banality and minor consequence about Mounir (Tahar Rahim) and Murielle (Emilie Dequenne), a young couple living in semi-rural Belgium with the young man’s adoptive father, a moderately wealthy doctor (Niels Arestrup). Mounir is Algerian in origin, though the exact relationship between the doctor and his mother – who lives back in Algeria – takes a while to become more clear. Note, however, that in this film, ‘clear’ is a relative term.
The main tension in the household comes from this trio’s unusual domestic set-up. Dr Pinget obviously expects the couple to live with him, and doesn’t mind the arrival of a succession of babies. Yet when the normal topic arises of the youngsters’ moving into a different household to find some independence, his reaction is extraordinarily passive aggressive – how could they do this to him! It’s a sign that all is not well.
That Arestrup is a masterful actor has been obvious from his work for French director Jacques Audiard, especially A Prophet, where he played a scary prison-yard kingpin known as “the Corsican” (opposite, as it happens, Rahim). While his role in Spielberg’s War Horse, where he had to deliver stilted dialogue in English, gave little idea of his abilities, he’s back here on Francophone turf and as subtle and powerful as ever. Dequenne (best known from the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta) and Rahim don’t let him down either. So why do the film’s cogs fail to engage?
This is based on a real-life story and it’s my guess that Belgian director and co-writer Joachim Lafosse made it for a Belgian – and perhaps French – audience already familiar with the outline of the story from media reports. On the other hand, perhaps it was his strategy to leave the audience a bit in the dark in order to keep them on their toes during the largely uneventful first hour. The film is more than halfway through before some of the basic information about the relationships on screen come into focus (and even then we’re sometimes left guessing). By this time it’s a bit late.
But there’s an even deeper problem, in that the film, for the most part, lacks the kind of dramatic incident that might have lifted it from the slough of despond. There are films made with obvious integrity that reach the highest levels of expression, but there are also films where integrity becomes a kind of deadweight, a supposed guarantor of authentic expression that is really closer to dun-coloured worthiness.
The latter is the case here. The weepy Scarlatti on the soundtrack is a clue: Lafosse probably thought he was being tasteful. Even the climax is maddeningly restrained. It’s as if he was so concerned about not doing anything wrong that he forgot to do much that was right.
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