A perdre la raison (Our children) is one of the ten films of the Official Selection of the LUX Prize 2012. It tells the story of Murielle and Mounir that love each other passionately. Ever since he was a boy, the young man has been living with Doctor Pinget who provides him with a comfortable life. When Mounir and Murielle decide to marry and have children, the couple’s dependence on the doctor becomes excessive. Murielle finds herself caught up in an unhealthy emotional climate that insidiously leads the family towards a tragic outcome.
Inspired the famous real-life case of Belgian mother Genevieve Lhermitte, who killed her five infant children in 2007, the film, written by Lafosse, Matthieu Reynaert and Thomas Bidegain, fictionalises the Lhermitte story to a certain extent (she only has four children in the film) and changes the names but sticks closely to some other details. The objective of the film is clear: to take the viewer by the hand and guide him to come to an understanding (which is not the same as an appreciation) of what drove a person to commit this unspeakable act on her own children.
What sets the film apart from others that have explored the subject is that its very construction is designed to refuse the notion one thing in particular is the cause. It is an accumulation of very many smaller things that lead to this woman going over the edge.
After a prologue that sees mother Murielle (Emilie Dequenne) in a hospital bed, asking that “they” will be buried in Morocco, and a shot of four small coffins being put into a plane, the story jumps back in time to the point when Murielle and the handsome Moroccan boy Mounir (Tahar Rahim) were still very much in lust – which perhaps the young ones confused with love.
Mounir was brought to Belgium by his sugar daddy of sorts, Doctor Pinget (Niels Arestrup), for whom Mounir works as an assistant. The precise nature of their strongly co-dependent relationship is never spelled out, something that can be explained because it gradually emerges that the film is really about Murielle and how she’s trying to block out all the inconvenient things in her life so that she can continue on living.
The couple’s four children, born in quick succession, put a further strain on their marriage, which in many ways is a three-way marriage since the couple and their offspring not only live with Pinget in the same house and are financially dependent on him but Murielle becomes dependent on the doctor’s prescriptions to treat her anxiety and depression.
Scene after scene, nothing particularly extraordinary seems to happen as the characters try to get on with their lives in this unusual household. But each seemingly insignificant thing that oppresses Murielle is another step closer toward her unspeakable act, and Lafosse beautifully illustrates the way in which small details can snowball into something so big it cannot be contained anymore.
The camerawork, by director of photography Jean-Francois Hensgens, continuously keeps something out-of-focus in the foreground (and often at the edge) of every shot, suggesting the oppression felt by Murielle (and the viewer) and her inability to see the full picture because she is blocking things out while also visualising the blind spot in her mind that allows her to go where no sane person would normally go. Worn out by daily housework, consumed by promiscuity, suffocated by her husband, who distances himself little by little, and by her father-in-law, who gets closer and closer to the immediate family, she loses her grip on life, retreats into silence and submission.
Working with a dramatic construction built around the day-to-day and which avoids sensationalism, Emilie Dequenne delivers a masterful performance, which reaches its peak in two out-of-range sequences on the telephone. Alongside her are Tahar Rahim, who confirms all the expectations placed on him in a difficult role, and Niels Arestrup, who is perfect in this role of smothering father, somewhere between ogre and black hole.
The difficulty rests on the expectations created by the background of the film, which is based on a terrifying incident that is still fresh in the Belgians' memories. Everyone in the country is aware of the Geneviève Lhermitte case, so it was real balancing act, while the press echoes complaints from the victims' family.
The award for Best Actress given to Emilie Dequenne in the Cannes Film Festival 2012 (Un Certain Regard) comes at the right time to place art back at the heart of the matter.