Joachim Lafosse makes no attempt to deceive his audience about where his tragic drama Our Children will end up. As the third film in a loose trilogy about domestic difficulties after Private Property and Private Lessons, Our Children _establishes the tone it will return to (utter despair) in the opening minutes. It opens with mother and lead Emelie Dequenne, broken and lifeless, announcing that her she would like her children to be buried in Morocco. This announces both the point of tragedy _Our Children will be crawling morosely towards, and also its subtext, post-colonial drama as much as infanticidal tragedy.
After this shock introduction, Our Children charts the marital struggles of Emelie Dequenne and Tahar Rahim in various disparate stages, from blossom to decay, with particular focus on their relationship with benefactor Niels Arestrup. The two men, reunited after sharing the screen in Jacques Audiard’s 2009 film Un Prophete, _aren’t quite as striking in this as they were in that film, but are both fully fledged and believable characters. The real focus is of course on Dequenne, and she is superlative in what is certainly a challenging role. A film of _Our Children’s type ultimately lives or dies on the strength of the performances, and Lafosse, as well as obviously being a strong director of actors, ensures that his characters have the necessary space to develop and grow, allowing time for the characters to reveal themselves in the performances before tearing them apart.
Through a series of lengthy flashbacks, the context of the marriage, and to a degree of the act of horror, is established as existing within the confines of the relationship of Rahim and Arestrup’s characters. Rahim has been under the wing of Arestrup, a wealthy and presumably lonely doctor, from his early childhood, removed from his family in Morocco and raised under the considerable comforts of Arestrup’s guiding hand. This is where the colonial issue comes in. The relationship, while perfectly amiable and seemingly beneficial for all involved, has an obvious and uncomfortable racial frame, the white-patriarchal Arestrup “saving” the poor Moroccan Rahim. To the credit of the performers, something is noticeably off before the nature of it all is even revealed. Expectedly, this triangular relationship creates complications and tensions; between Rahim and his brother, who stayed in Morocco and is miserable there; and between Rahim and Dequenne, who are trapped by Arestrup, living off his bounty to such a degree that Rahim works for him, the family lives with him and he pays for almost everything they own.
They all live together as one child after another pops out of an increasing fraught Dequenne, and temperatures rise with the number of inhabitants of the house as they all increasing tread on each other’s feet. Eventually, Dequenne, under obvious stress, suggests that perhaps they move out, live an independent life rather than one under constant indebtitude to Arestrup. Arestrup becomes indolent at this suggestion, and his paternal grace turns to possessive rage. This becomes the breaking point, the façade of a successful triangular relationship collapses, and the next thing you know, four children are dead.
The increasing tension is mirrored by the use of a repeated piece of music, a section of Haydn’s Stabat Mater, of which the significance alters with the increasing hostility. Through the early blooming of the marriage, it feels warm and romantic, but as tensions surmount and Dequenne’s mental state declines, combined with the audiences increasing awareness that the foreshadowed moment grows closer, it starts to sound much more solemn and much more foreboding.
The song however, despite being the only music used (bar an excellent extended single take where Dequenne manically sings a song to herself in the car to the point of tears,) is notably absent from the final sequence. In the scene which everything has been leading up to, silence is used effectively and chillingly to create a pointed detachment to the execution. Lafosse plays out the dreaded event through two static shots; the first placed inside the home, in the living room with the children as Dequenne calls them one by one off screen to their death; and the second placed outside of the family home, as Dequenne confesses her crime to police over the house phone. And for the first time, everything is truly, chillingly silent, no Haydn, no household noises, nothing.
And yet, we are here. Just as it was announced at the start, the children are to be buried. But there is no real enlightenment over what exactly lead to it. We are shown the pressures and the tensions, in the story and in the increasing lines and swelling of Dequenne’s face, but it all still feels a bit sudden. Admittedly this is for effect, but it is still indisputable that the film spends the majority of its two hour runtime carefully establishing the marriage and the family and the cracks that run through it, only to quickly convert stressed housewife to infanticidal murderer, with little questioning as to how this could happen. It could be said that Lafosse doesn’t know what was going through the head of the mother of the real life incident any more than you or I may, but as director, especially after that suggestive opening, it is hard not to feel that it is his prerogative to at least try to find out.