Our Children

“All tragedies begin as a love story,” Joachim Lafosse asserted following a screening of Our Children, at last year’s New York Film Festival. The statement certainly applies to the Belgian writer-director’s film, which begins in the throes of young love and ends in quadruple infanticide (as revealed in an eloquent opening sequence). Ripping its morbid story from the 2007 Belgian headlines, Lafosse takes an anti-sensationalist approach to his storytelling, exploring rather than explaining the macabre reality of a young woman’s descent from happiness to psychosis.

When young Moroccan immigrant Mounir (Tahar Rahim) marries Murielle (Émilie Dequenne), the couple are grateful to have a roof over their head provided for them by Mounir’s surrogate father André (Niels Arestrup)—even if it means they’ll all be living together. But the strings attached to André’s generous support are gradually revealed as the couple’s complete dependence on their perverse benefactor only increases with the passage of time (which the film shrewdly demarcates through Murielle’s four pregnancies).

As Mounir’s employer and Murielle’s obstetrician, the doctor’s omnipresence presents more than one conflict of interest: he also has a paper marriage to Mounir’s sister, and it’s hinted that he and Mounir may have a past sexual history. A kind of Belgian Don Corleone with a medical degree, André controls the couple’s every move by instating a regime of emotional servitude, and the close living quarters become more oppressive with every child Muriel bears. Though she tries to convince Mounir to move back to Morocco, he finds himself unable to cut the cord, and she bears the brunt of the suffering as a result.

Co-written by Thomas Bidegain (Rust & Bone) and Matthieu Reynaert, the film is expertly shot by Jean-François Hensgens, who conveys how Murielle is smothered by her surroundings by always crowding one side of the frame with window panes, walls, and doorways. Unfolding to the sounds of chamber music, Our Children is an elegantly restrained but palpably tense psychodrama with one of the most chilling final scenes to come in some time. FILM COMMENT spoke with the 37-year-old Lafosse about the film, previously featured as a Hot Property and opening in New York this Friday.

Our Children

Can you explain the genesis of the project, how it went from a news story you heard to a feature film?

I heard the story on the radio, and I had the impression that in Belgium the media wanted to make a monster out of this woman. I proposed to my scriptwriter that we do a project about how a woman could do that [kill her children]. Because for me, when I heard the story, it was not possible to understand, it was not possible to imagine. With the work, I began to discover how. I don’t have the real answer, but it’s important for me to ask how.

We wanted to make a cinematic movie, but it’s not possible to create suspense with this sort of movie. It’s important to work with dramatic irony and we decided two things when we started to work: to begin at the end, and not to show the killing of the children. But with this movie my real pleasure was to have a script just for the actors. I tried to forget the director. I decided to work just with the characters and with the story. I refused to have a dogma, to have very strict guidelines about the style.

Both this film and Private Property (06) center on mothers that are smothered by their families to the point of breakdown. They’re trapped simply by the fact that they’re women with children. Is this something you see as a broader social problem?

It’s not easy to be a woman today, even if magazines and things say it’s easy to be a lover, a mother, and a boss. It’s important to say no, it’s not so simple. When you have lots of children it’s hard being other things than a mother. And Murielle’s problem is that she loses everything else in her life and she is just a mother. It’s important to say this to men, to fathers. I am a new father, and when I see my wife with the children, it’s complicated. As men, we have to be able to work with women. Often audiences and critics ask me: how can you show the life of a woman like this, when you yourself are not a woman? I’m just a man but, I see women.

The economic stakes are very high for the main characters, both in this film and Private Property. Economics seems to govern and even stifle emotion in your films.

I like to put the characters not at the beginning of the problem. In life, when you meet someone with whom you later have a problem, the problem arises because you don’t know their life, their history. That’s life. When I see a film where the directors give you the biography of the characters at the beginning of the movie, it’s too easy. It’s important to do the work, to have the biography, but to take it out of the script. Less is more.

Our Children

The character of the doctor was particularly interesting. He’s a constantly looming presence—central despite being on the periphery. We get very few intimate scenes with him. How did you construct his character?

He’s the best way to understand the story. I like this script because you have two things in the script that create the tragedy. At the beginning there is a favor, and then: the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. The doctor is a man who would like to be generous, to be nice to the couple. But little by little, subconsciously, you discover that it’s not normal, it’s perverse. It’s like a little boy with no friends. His solution is to give gifts. It’s not possible to have good relationships that way. Maybe the couple can refuse the gifts, but they are much too fragile, they’re too dependent and they completely lose their freedom. It’s not a movie about the death of the children, it’s a movie about freedom, about the importance of independence.

The theme of entrapment seems prevalent in your work.

That’s a good point. I will finish the script for my next film next month, and even though I’m not filming a family, I don’t change the subject. I chose to shoot a group of people who decide to save an African orphan. They do a lot of stupid things; they begin with good intentions and end in tragedy. I think my obsession is to show how good intentions and generosity can provoke both good and evil. If we know what good is, we think we can live a very good life, but it’s not like that: the bad things always come with the good. A lot of people in politics, for example, say beautiful things, but when you ask questions you discover in the end that it’s not possible, or it’s dangerous.

For me it’s a beautiful subject for the cinema: I prefer to shoot what you can’t see. It’s a bit of a commonplace idea, but I like it. Claude Chabrol also works with that: the perversion of the bourgeoisie, the danger that comes with power and money. I like to make films about that. For the next one, maybe it’ll be the same subject, but a different situation. I’ve stopped with the family. I’ve made four films about the family: that’s enough.

There’s an implicit underlying sexual tension between the doctor and Mounir that’s never elucidated.

I refuse to write in the script that there’s a relationship between them. But for me it’s important to at least propose a relationship between the two men because its adds to the dynamic of dependence. Mounir was not able to accept his wife’s proposal that they live in Morocco because he’s afraid to do something bad to his protector. He has a debt. You don’t have a debt, for example, to your parents. If you are a good parent, you have to say to your children, you don’t owe me anything. You want them to fly—to be independent—but the doctor refuses to see that. That’s why for me, his character is perverse. But for him, it’s not conscious. He invites Muriel to live in the house, but it doesn’t work. He’s a man with a lot of problems.

But the character I started with was Mounir. I wanted to write about Mounir’s debt to the doctor. I come from Belgium; we’re ex-colonialists. The film is also a metaphor of the colonial consequence. The doctor helps the couple only if they stay with him. That’s not love. In my next film I try to show that if you want to help Africa, give money to Africa to help them build their own country. Don’t tell them what their country needs—that’s exactly what the doctor does.

Our Children

The cinematography was incredibly strong in this film, particularly the contrast between the beautifully open settings in Morocco and the claustrophobic interiors back home, where there is always a doorway or a wall crammed into one side of the frame.

The cinematographer and I had a long discussion before shooting. We understood the story as simple: it’s the story of a woman who moves in with a young husband and his protector. And when she arrives in the house, she loses her freedom. She lives without privacy or intimacy. There is always someone watching; there is no possibility of private space. To create this sense of oppression for the audience, we decided to work with the right or left side of windows or doors. At the beginning of the project I was afraid of two things. One was to work with young children, because directing four young children under five years old is dangerous: at that age you can’t ask them to do the scene over again. The other thing was to tell a story that takes place over six or seven years without it being repetitive or boring—for example, we have four births to show. That’s why we worked a lot with the script to find good ellipses.

It’s worked out very effectively in the film: time is measured in the births of the children, but it never feels repetitive.

With each birth, the situation changes. I spent 10 days in a day care with the young actors to come up with a system of directing the children. We decided that only the three actors would speak to the children and direct them. I never spoke with them. Because for them, it’s not possible to understand when you have three or four people directing you. I asked the crew never to speak with them, and after a few days they forgot the crew was there. We had an incredibly patient crew. Sometimes we would wait one or two hours because the children refused, or were tired, or crying. It was really complicated. So I’m very proud of this aspect of the film. You don’t have a lot of films with such young children in them.

The climactic final scene is deliberately underplayed; we only see the exterior of the house. What made you decide to shoot it that way?

I always use the same example, but if you see a horrible accident, a car accident for example, you’re traumatized and you don’t have the capacity to think. I would like to create emotion, but emotion that provokes thought. If you show the killing of the children, the spectators would stop thinking. During the actual trial of this woman, the jury saw photos of the crime. But she’s sick, not a criminal. When you put sick people in prison, you don’t live in a progressive society.

I saw traces of Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent in your film. What are some of your artistic influences?

Cassavetes, the Dardenne Brothers, Orson Welles, Michael Haneke. And I forgot the best one: Maurice Pialat.