Monday, August 12, 2013

Our Children

Director Joachim Lafosse opens "Our Children" with an image of such primal sadness - four children's caskets being placed in an airplane's cargo hold - that it would take a monumental film to feel as though it had earned that right. Instead, the opening only casts a grim pall over the film that leaves us always waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.

Lafosse has ingeniously reunited Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, the two great stars of "A Prophet" (which made my top-ten list a few years ago), as, respectively, Mounir, a Moroccan, and André, the doctor who informally adopted him as a young boy and brought him to France and a life of material comfort. Mounir lacks André's intellect and ambition, and takes a job as André's office assistant. He is in love with a teacher named Murielle, played by Émilie Dequenne in a performance that rightfully won her an acting award at Cannes' secondary Un Certain Regard competition.

Separately and together, Mounir and Murielle chafe under André's smothering. Both would prefer to scrimp and save and buy a place of their own, but they agree to allow André to buy them a house and rent back part of it to him on a 15-year lease. André's motivations, like most people's, include both genuine generosity and more selfish concerns. Even after Murielle gives birth to three daughters and, finally, a son, André does not hesitate to opine or even substitute his judgment for hers as to a wide variety of matters. Eventually, Mounir, feeling increasingly emasculated, lashes out at her as well.

All of this leads up to the scene in which the four children sit in front of their television set watching cartoons, and from upstairs Murielle calls for them, one at a time, to come to her. Dequenne has done her best to get us inside Murielle's head, but this final act still feels abrupt and underdeveloped. And for a film called "Our Children," we spend little time with the kids and come to know almost nothing about them individually.

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