Our Children is a claustrophobic drama about a young married couple that share a home with a middle-aged physician. The husband is Moroccan; the doctor helped him immigrate to Belgium and has become his de facto godfather. When the husband can’t find work, the doctor gets him a job. When the wife feels stressed, he writes her a note to get sick leave. When the couple can’t afford something, the doctor buys it for them. He is equally generous and suffocating.
In terms of both plot and style (a string of one-face-then-another handheld shots), Our Children stakes everything on performance. To that end, director Joachim Lafosse enlists the stars of Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup, to play the husband and the doctor, respectively. Even more important to the film, however, is Émilie Dequenne, whose lead performances in Rosetta and The Girl On The Train are master classes in close-up acting; as the wife, she becomes the literal face of the movie, suggesting discomfort, tension, and, ultimately, unspeakable emotional pain with subtle movements of her eyes and mouth.
Though Lafosse’s handling of the actors is pitch-perfect, his sense of structure is more problematic. The decision to start the movie at the end and then jump back several years undercuts the drama; because the viewers suspect what’s coming (especially if they’re familiar with the case Our Children is based on), the foreshadowing becomes transparent, each detail an indicator of things to come.
It’s a minor flaw, considering how deftly Lafosse constructs the film’s middle section. His unsentimental view of family life and abrupt pacing owe a lot to Maurice Pialat, the patron saint of brutal Francophone realism. (Pialat’s widow, Sylvie, co-produced the film.) The way in which, for instance, Lafosse almost never shows an argument being resolved mimics real family dynamics (i.e., the audience knows that the characters will eventually say that they’re sorry, so it isn’t necessary to show it), while allowing the scene to linger in a viewer’s mind the same way petty quarrels can linger in a family’s collective memory. The scenes that focus on Dequenne’s “private” life—nursing a baby in the middle of the night, trying on a Moroccan robe, singing along to a song on the radio—also recall Pialat in the way they buck narrative expectations; they seem drawn not from dramatic convention, but from lived experience.