based on a terrible true story (Our Children review)

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Our Children green light Emilie Dequenne Tahar Rahim

I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Four little white coffins being loaded onto a plane. A young mother insisting from a hospital bed that her children be buried in Morocco. This is how the harrowing Our Children opens, and it does not get any easier to stomach from there. It’s also almost impossible to discuss in any meaningful way beyond that point without negatively impacting the experience of seeing it for the first time. For though this isn’t a traditional story of suspense, and there’s nothing in the least sensational or titillating in how director Joachim Lafosse presents his tale, this is inescapably about the journey of one young couple from newlywed happiness to the enormous tragedy we know is looming in their future — and as we watch how it slowly takes shape and our suspicions begin to form around the nature of it, we begin to wonder how they did not also see it, or something like it, coming.

Theirs is not a typical relationship. The strangeness isn’t in that Murielle (Émilie Dequenne: Brotherhood of the Wolf) is Belgian and Mounir (Tahar Rahim: Free Men) is a Moroccan immigrant, for such crosscultural relationships aren’t at all unusual, but in how much influence Mounir’s employer, André (Niels Arestrup: Sarah’s Key), appears to exert over them. André helped Mounir emigrate, is very close to Mounir’s Moroccan family, and has served as a father figure to the young man in Belgium, but just how much power André has over Mounir’s life is slow to be revealed.

Fantastic performances are part of why this is such an unsettling film: Dequenne, who won Best Actress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is agonizingly good as a young woman slowly snowed under by the unexpected realities of her new life. Rahim, whom I’ve been raving about for a while now, is one of the most interesting young European actors at the moment, and uncomfortably combines naivete and malevolence here. And the legendary Arestrup makes quietness terrifying.

But this is based on a true story, and Lafosse — who cowrote the script with Thomas Bidegain (Rust and Bone) and Matthieu Reynaert — finds a creepy power in how casually he doles out revelations about the wrongness of the ugly triangle formed by these three people, as if to underscore how normal it all seems to them. Indeed, there’s true, subdued horror, too, in how recognizable the big picture of their lives is: the details may be peculiar, but this is a much more universal story than it may appear at first.

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