The latest film by Belgian director Joachim Lafosse (Private Property, 2006) is a quietly powerful tragedy about a mother who takes desperate measures to extricate herself from an emotionally claustrophobic home life. Falling for and marrying Mounir (Tahar Rahim), an immigrant Moroccan medic who lives with his adoptive father and protector Dr André Pinget (Niels Arestrup), Muriel moves in with the two men and soon starts a family with her husband. But with Pinget’s subtly oppressive influence dominating the household, Muriel’s happiness as a young mother is short-lived and she begins to feel the walls closing in on her. Screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Our Children is a restrained and cumulatively devastating examination of a woman losing her reason.
What first prompted you to tackle the disturbing theme of Our Children?
A few years ago I heard about this news story on the radio about a woman who had killed her own children, and I was rather frightened by the way the media created a monster out of this woman. I talked about it with my wife, with friends, and everybody said it was impossible to imagine – it’s unthinkable. That’s when I saw my co-writers and thought maybe we could do a script that would make it a bit more imaginable, more thinkable.
We weren’t trying to tell the truth about this actual news story or even give it justice through cinema. Cinema is never truth or reality, it’s always an invention, a construction. But what fascinated us was that it was a great tragedy. Like all great tragedies it starts with a passionate love story, and very quickly the way to hell is paved with good intentions. That’s the aspect I was interested in.
So, much more than infanticide, what I was interested in was the giving, the generosity, this altruism that provokes perversions. Filmmakers that I like often ask themselves this question of good and evil. I like to make the spectator vigilant about the fact that the worst can come of this generosity. If evil only came out of bad intentions, then everything would be fine!
I also like to play with the structure of triangles, and in this story that was pretty incredible: the triangular relationship.
You were interested in creating an invention, but did you research similar real-life cases?
We read a lot about this particular news story in Belgium in terms of documents, but I’d say what was most useful to me was my own psychoanalysis. From the day I decided to make a film out of it, what was incredible is that every time over five years, in three weekly sessions, I’d talk about it. There was something in this story that completely resonated within me, that I identified with, maybe because I come from a family where there is a relationship to colonialism, to a patriarchal, paternalistic side, and from which it’s sometimes very hard to emancipate yourself.
What’s terrible in this story, for example for the character of Mounir, is that what André leaves him is all or nothing. There’s no possibility of a compromise. When you’re in that kind of logic within such families, it’s extremely destructive. It’s with the character of Mounir that we really got into the writing, and [with whom] we enter the film. For me, he’s the one who’s most touched by it all. He’s totally lost his freedom. This desire to make sure his relationship is safe with the doctor stops him from living fully with his wife.
In a way, he is much more touched by this than Muriel, because she actually rebels, but Mounir can’t even choose. And to not be able to choose is the most tragic thing in the world.
The two lead actors, Niels Arestrup and Tahar Rahim, are reunited from A Prophet (2009), playing characters in a similar relationship. Is the viewer intended to make a connection between these two films?
When I saw A Prophet, I was very impressed that quite clearly there was latent homosexuality in the characters’ relationship. When I watched the film, I was actually finishing writing this script and because the character of Muriel is trying to enter [into a relationship with] this couple, and the person she’s in love with is probably more of a couple with the doctor, the protector, than the couple that she can possibly have, I thought it would be interesting to have these two actors onscreen again in this relationship.
Emilie Déquennes made her striking debut in the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta (1999), and your cinematographer Jean-François Hensgens has also worked with the Dardennes. Do you feel a kinship with their work?
Very early on, when I first started making films, there were a few points of reference: the Dardenne brothers, [Maurice] Pialat, and [Michael] Haneke. I don’t come from a family of cinephiles, but I started devouring films with those three. As a filmmaker, I find the Dardenne brothers’ relationship to long takes and their relationship to reality very interesting.
The cinematography of Our Children contains a lot of objects blocking views and blurring the borders of the frame. How did you work with your cinematographer to arrive at this look?
We talked about it together and thought this was a story where you have a woman without intimate space. They live in a house where everyone sees everyone all the time. [Shooting like this] was a way for me to remind the spectator of his position as a spectator. In a family conflict, the worst thing would be to have to choose between mum or dad. I’d rather the spectator is someone who is observing very vigilantly the unfolding of the drama, how it weaves itself, rather than a situation where the spectator –instead of observing – actively takes part in it. This form that I chose is a way of reminding the audience that they are watching.
What decisions did you make about how to dramatise the murders?
We decided two very important things on the first day of writing: to give away the end at the beginning and to refuse to show the violence, the killing of the children. Why? Because for me [the theme of the film] was how this was possible. If you give the end at the beginning, you make the audience start to think how this situation could be possible. I’d rather work on the dramatic links rather than on suspense. Sometimes I like suspense movies, but with this subject it wasn’t possible. It would be vulgar and disgusting to do that with this particular story.
How did you go about working with the children?
When I started the film that was something that really scared me. It’s important when you’re making a film to feel a certain amount of fear. I was scared of having to work with children who were under five, because you don’t direct them when they’re under five. That implies a certain set-up that you have to find.
So in order to find that way of working, I did a short film in a crèche for five months, and that was a way of finding out how you can film young children without disturbing them, or losing their spontaneity. The only solution is that one person is dedicated to speaking to the kids, and everyone else must ignore them and not speak to them. I never spoke to them, it was Emilie who did that. In that sense, Emilie was their mother on the shoot.
The film is called A perdre la raison. What do you think of the English title Our Children?
It wasn’t me who chose the English title, but I actually like both. I think in all the great family tragedies, it’s the children who are at stake, who are at the heart of the conflict. In this story, the doctor says, “They’re my children. You can’t take them to Morocco.” She’s so convinced that they’re her children that she ends up taking them with her. Mounir has nothing that belongs to him. So I was interested [that it became] ‘Our’ Children. Now the French title explains more the process, because ‘a perdre la raison’ means to lose your mind.