Opening today at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Theater in Lincoln Center, “Our Children” is based on a tragic incident in which a Belgian woman named Genevieve Lhermitte killed her five children during a period of extreme psychological stress. She lived with her husband Bouchaib Moqadem in the house of an elderly Belgian physician upon whom the couple was dependent. Director and screenwriter Joachim Lafosse has taken the bare bones of the story and transformed it into a general meditation on dependency with the elderly doctor serving as a symbol of colonialism and the wife as her Moroccan husband’s subject within the household. At first blush, the title “Our Children” would seem to refer to the four children (the film changes the number of offspring for no obvious reason) but upon further reflection points to the colonial and patriarchal relationships that taint this tragic household.
Leaving no doubt about the outcome, the film starts with Murielle lying in a hospital bed inquiring whether it would be possible for her murdered children to be buried in Morocco. It was not what the young lovers Mounir and Murielle would have expected years earlier, driving along in their car in perfect bliss. He proposes and she accepts. He then reveals his plans to his adoptive father, a physician named André Pinget who scowls upon hearing the news, adding that a young man should not get married to the first woman who gives him a blow job.
Despite his seeming aversion to a perfectly lovely young woman who has the advantage of being an educated woman of good Belgian stock, he ultimately accepts her as a daughter-in-law and even more generously as a resident in the apartment that he has shared with Mounir since he was a young boy. For reasons never explored in the film, Pinget has become entwined with a Moroccan family. After marrying Mounir’s older sister solely to allow her to become a Belgian citizen, he adopts Mounir, leaving his younger brother to languish in a backward Moroccan village. When his brother comes to France for the wedding, he lashes out at him in resentment, telling him that everybody in the village “knows” that he in an incestuous relationship with his adoptive father.
Despite earning a medical degree, Mounir is having trouble finding work. In an interview, a Belgian doctor tells him that his skills are inadequate. Once again, Pinget comes to the rescue in dubious fashion. He invites Mounir to work for him, thus tightening his control over the young man.
As Pinget’s grip over Mounir tightens, so does his over his wife. Within what appears to be a span of about six years, four children have come into the world—three girls and a boy, the latest arrival. Like one of the women profiled in Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”, Murielle—an elementary schoolteacher forced to devote herself to child-rearing, cleaning, and preparing André and Mounir’s dinner—is growing increasingly desperate in a claustrophobic environment. After talking her husband into moving to Morocco, he broaches the subject with André who explodes at him: “I raised you for twenty years and now your are dumping me?” The solution is for the doctor and the family he controls with a tight leash is to move into a larger house. Of course, this is no solution at all and Murielle’s despair deepens.
In the press notes for “Our Children”, the finest narrative film I have seen in 2013, Joachim Lafosse touches on the subject of colonialism:
There is a colonialist dimension to the character: a European who has adopted a young North African…
Lafosse: Precisely. The problem with colonialism is that the colonizer doesn’t make his history with the colonized official, he doesn’t recognize it. It remains unofficial and secret for him. Doctor Pinget presents himself as Mounir’s adoptive father but he isn’t because he hasn’t given him his name. That’s why I would say instead that Mounir is Pinget’s protégé, with all the ambiguity that entails. That is one of the things that fascinated me. You don’t make a film with ideas but with characters. That’s the lesson that the Dardenne brothers teach us. And here the characters are what I care about. How do you break free of someone who has given you everything, who has been your protector, your teacher, your educator? It can be a dangerous gift. We can imagine that André Pinget finds it hard expressing his love, that he is concealing a fragile side of his personality. That is what I told Niels Arestrup who plays him: “Your character is like a little boy who has to hand out sweets all the time to have friends in the schoolyard! And if he doesn’t have any sweets, he thinks that no one will love him!” André can only imagine bonds from that angle. That is the tragedy of his life and it’s a vicious circle.