Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children (Á perdre la raison, a.k.a. Loving without Reason, a much more sensible title) put me in mind of Catherine Corsini’s Leaving (Partir, 2009), in part because both films represent the continued promise of the international cinema during the US cinema’s ongoing willed bankruptcy at every level. Leaving appeared in the season that brought us Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, and Marco Bellochio’s Vincere, all films about the oppression and destruction of the female. Our Children appears (at least within my imagination) perhaps as another harbinger of good things to come since it is within another rich cluster, including Bruno Dumont’s masterpiece Hors Satan (actually released in Europe in 2011, and shown here only at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image and Anthology Film Archives) and his Camille Claudel 1915 (which also had very limited release in the US), among the most stunning films about the oppression of woman, and Cristian Mingiu’s Beyond the Hills, another somewhat overlooked masterpiece about women and one of their biggest enemies, the church. The US reader will note that this latter cluster may be unknown or vaguely known (unless you pursue cinema very diligently) relative to the first. These enjoyed less distribution than the 2009 films as the American industry becomes more rigid about what the public sees and American taste is yet more coarsened by the blockbuster trash that is now entrenched as standard fare, defining “cinema” in yet more limited terms.
Our Children has a basic similarity to Leaving; both films deal with the female within the confines of domestic life, her travails of husband, children and home markedly ordinary, the horrors facing woman flowing from basic domestic activities that are consistently oppressive under patriarchal assumptions. Leaving strikes me as the more focused and accomplished film, but Our Children shares a similar intelligence, an understanding of the relationship of male rule to capitalism, racism, and neocolonialism (Lafosse addresses the latter in a DVD interview), and a sensitive reference to classical culture that shows us, in the words of Robin Wood, what we have lost, yet making us realize that there are still those artists who apply the past to the present, to convey both an enlightened sense of human progress and the awful challenges still facing us.
Mounir (Tahar Rahim) is a young Moroccan man living in French-speaking Belgium. He is the adopted son of Dr. Pinget (Niels Arestrup), who took him out of Morocco at the request of Mounir’s widowed and impoverished mother Rachida (Baya Belal). Pinget also entered into a sham marriage with Mounir’s sister Fatima (Mounia Raoui), permitting her to live near her brother. Pinget’s motivations are unclear. Does he actually have affection for Mounir and his sister? Is it all an act of condescending charity? Does he have a sexual relationship with Fatima? How did all this happen in the first place? The film is best read as pure metaphor. As Lafosse has remarked, the film can be understood as a critique of colonialism – Europe erases another culture as Mounir is westernized, and the west again asserts its prerogatives in the Middle East. I cannot help but think of the notorious French takeover of Algeria, next door to Morocco, turning it into a “department” of France, resulting in a war and several bloodbaths in both nations. As the horrors of Mounier’s household unfold, one cannot help but think of marriages of convenience, in this sort of instance at least, as a form of human abuse, perhaps human trafficking.
The Passive Oedipus
On a more essential level, the film looks both at the Oedipal trajectory and the treatment of the female (as well as the control of the sex act) by the patriarch. Pinget’s interaction with Mounir is aggressive, but burnished with a false graciousness and expression of paternal concern. In an early scene we see Mounir making love with girlfriend Murielle (Émilie Dequenne); afterward, they clean the car fastidiously so Pinget won’t know – the father wants his belongings to stay in order of course, but there is the strong sense, as the film unfolds, that he is the primal father, policing his grown son’s genital activity, and monitoring the behavior of his “horde.” When Mounir tells his father that he wants to marry Murielle, Pinget responds: “Being in love is no reason to marry the first girl who blows you.” The advice might be sensible, were it not couched in such terms, suggesting that the female is the aggressor, that she is the one who does something to the male. Mounir is diminished by Pinget’s castrating remark; his responses are essentially passive-defensive, not rebutting the father effectively, nor does he challenge his basic assertions. Pinget insists on footing all the bills, setting Mounir up in life, stymieing the son with guilt. Mounir does take the step of marrying Murielle. Pinget pays for the honeymoon, at which point Mounir, almost incomprehensibly, invites him to come along. Pinget accepts, always ready with his wallet.
When the men come home to find Murielle asleep, the dinner unprepared, Pinget offers to buy pizza. The offer is accompanied by nasty glances at Murielle, and derisive remarks to his adopted son about a disgraceful wife. When Murielle registers her timid complaints, Mounir’s retorts include lines like “It’s his home.” We see then not just the castrated son but the colonized subject (and consciousness) in the position suggested by Frantz Fanon: the subject thinks s/he must feel beholden, and learns to internalize the value system of the colonizer. The dynamic continues: Mounir turning anger toward his wife, Murielle sinking into deep depression that transforms her even physically.
The Atrophied Female
Murielle more or less evaporates before our eyes. She has an identity and a position in life, but the job’s function suggests a stifled element key to her character, and to conceptions of the female under gender assessment in western culture. She teaches young children in grammar school, a job seen as especially suitable to women, viewed as most nurturing to children of course, and the job requires not much in the way of intellectual achievement – the female and her charges are both children. It is an extension of domestic life – the female merely continues the raising of children in another sphere. The point is emphasized by Murielle’s constant pregnancies. Her motherly function is underlined by her job and the steady signifier of her large belly. As strife worsens on the actual domestic front, the affable Murielle becomes aggressive toward the schoolchildren. When a boy seems to be cheating during a test, she expels him from the room. As he leaves in anger, he shouts at her, pitying, he says, the child she is about to have – the remark, or at least its misogynist rage, could come from Mounir or Pinget.
Murielle is turned into a breed sow, giving birth to four children in close order. The film’s editing emphasizes the breathless aspect of the process, as we see Murielle bearing one child after the other, the last a screaming, terrifying process that results in a Caesarean section. When she finds she is pregnant with the fourth child, Pinget talks to her about the situation. Is he concerned about Murielle or the extra financial burden on him, caused by another of his son’s offspring? (He says at one point “I’m not made of money”). His racist ideas are just below the surface; when Murielle suggests to Mounir that they move to Morocco where the cost of living is cheaper (and where they might escape Pinget’s reach), Mounir broaches the topic with his father. Pinget rebukes him out of hand: “Do you know how they raise girls in Morocco?” The comment assumes, of course, that child-rearing in the west, especially under the roofs of the Pingets, is fine and dandy. The child-rearing concern is less about Islamic law than it is the father retaining authority over the son, the female interloper constantly demeaned both in her own mind and in that of her husband. The Morocco idea pushes Pinget into a rage that exposes his racism: “I’m sick of taking care of you and your tribe!” He quietly reproaches Murielle: “what ideas have you put in his head?” The female is, typically, the demonic temptress, the force of irrationality, who plants evil within the male.
Since abortion is (and perhaps long has been) in Murielle’s mind (it’s perhaps more a case of her own desires being momentarily validated by the patriarch), she brings up the subject to her husband. Mounir’s response is predictable: “You didn’t think I’d let you have an abortion?”
Mounir’s response to his wife capsulizes his entire behavior toward home and family, characterized by resentment, even hatred. When one of his young daughters brings to him a broken toy, Mounir barks, admonishing her – and the household – for disturbing his peace of mind when he wants to watch football.
Murielle disintegrates. At one point we see her sleeping with one of her babies, her breathing almost convulsive, so difficult is it for her to rest as her burdens increase, including a visit from Mounir’s mother and siblings. One evening, the mother falls on the floor by the bathroom. Murielle jumps up like a shot, feeling by now that all bad things that happen in the house are her doing. Helping the mother is important on several counts. She embraces Murielle as a daughter. When she returns to Morocco, she can hardly leave the airport out of her grief at leaving Murielle. The two women stop to embrace each other twice, showing real affection (the mother doesn’t embrace Mounir once). The mother stops, turns, and looks back at her daughter-in-law, a gaze of longing and sadness on her face. There is the sense, expressed at a different register in Tokyo Story, of a bond shared by women across generations (here across cultures as well), knowing quite well the struggles that are eternal, and the indifference and outright cruelty of men.
As Murielle slides inexorably into depression, Pinget recommends a colleague, a female psychiatrist named De Clerck, but cautions Murielle to not mention their living arrangements (Murielle’s living with her family doctor, who dictates all, including topics at the foundation of Murielle’s mental illness). De Clerck is pleasant and apparently open, but Murielle mentions Pinget’s marriage to Mounir’s sister (De Clerck responds “sham marriages can be a sources of stress” – of course the obvious response is to question what constitutes the “legitimate,” since Murielle’s life has driven her to the precipice). Murielle then accidentally mentions her precise relationship with Pinget, which raises issues to De Clerck about her own professional situation. Although she is somewhat astonished by the Pinget-created living arrangements, the real issue seems simple fear of a powerful patriarch whose authority in his field is vast (I’m reminded of the Dr. Hill sequence in Rosemary’s Baby, where the affable and trusted young doctor returns Rosemary to the devil-worshippers, not because he’s part of a conspiracy, but because he is afraid of the wrath of the revered Dr. Sapirstein, a heavyweight in medicine). Naturally, when Pinget learns of the slip, he again gouges Murielle.
Lafosse has mentioned the application of the Medea narrative to his film. In Euripides, the most psychological of the Athenian tragedians, Jason is a bastard, his mythic status somewhat lessened. Euripides tries to reduce Jason, and indeed because he does so the play has its applicability to all epochs. Here, the Medea story flows from the male’s unbridled arrogance (but Medea’s barbarism is very much in the foreground, cautioning us about reading the play as a feminist text of antiquity). Murielle, like Medea, is an outsider (at several levels). She acts not out of rage over adultery, but rather the basic horror of marriage as imposed upon her by the male. Our Children, unlike Medea, is unburdened by theatrical flourish and period bias, helping it to focus more precisely on the elementary, impossible snares of gender. It is notable, however, that as Medea is applied in art over the ages, it necessarily becomes more radical because more precise and reduced, a tool used to investigate the foundations of the heterosexual relationship itself.
As Murielle crumbles, her physical presentation elicits no sympathetic, supportive comment. Mounir tells her: “You realize what the children think, seeing you like this?!” Most of his comments are on the order of “You’re pissing me off.” When a child falls down a staircase as Murielle naps (the male of course having no responsibilities), she is blamed for sloth and neglect – one gets the sense that this is an unconscious act, a prelude to what will happen later on as her situation is exacerbated.
Murielle shops in an awful big-box store, the current site of the female’s looking out for the home, her “shopping.” It is notable that she stops for a moment at a DVD rack and chooses a film. She tries to sustain her inner life through culture (assuming she didn’t select a piece of dreck). She then walks into the kitchen appliance section where she shoplifts a butcher knife – the instrument used for her ultimate act of repudiation comes from the realm over which she is supposed to preside.
There is a key scene as she drives home. We see her in her car, the radio on, the song “Femmes Je Vous Aime,” by pop balladeer Julien Clerc amplified on the soundtrack. We hear the lyrics: “When every single wound seems to last forever… I know only fragile ones [women], and difficult ones, not simple ones…” This supposedly heart-felt torch song needs to be read “against the grain” (a phrase I tend to despise, assuming as it does that people before postmodernity never saw the ambiguity of art, and it can provoke readings that ignore all evidence). The song assumes that women are constantly wounded (true enough) but that they have one quality, one set of characteristics that are a projection of male notions of the female. The song is a slice of latter-day Romanticism that is about male angoisse, not women’s struggle for survival. In a superb moment, Murielle breaks down, perhaps recognizing the irony of the song, perhaps knowing that true affection (excluding the departed mother) is nowhere in sight, and that escape is impossible. Pinget has too firmly established his economic centrality as the film informs us that capitalism undergirds male supremacy – the particular gender of the administrator of capital is of course not very relevant, since it will always be a patriarchal institution.
The killing of the children takes place off camera. She calls each child upstairs, in a pleasant voice, as the kids sit nestled in front of cartoons on the family television (always a distraction, always an escape and an excuse not to converse). The final shot is of the large, somewhat rustic domicile, paid for by Dr. Pinget, as Murielle announces, tearfully, her crimes to the police over the phone. The image of the house, like similar shots in Leaving, establishes the home as prison.
Like Haneke’s early masterpiece The Seventh Continent, Our Children is “based on true events.” Fortunately, neither film makes much of this. Both filmmakers simply noted the incidents behind their narratives in conversation, but then assumed them to be typical of our present world, not aberrations with which to titillate the spectator, who is then invited to enjoy them as such, thus preventing an identification with the crisis implicit in the normal.
A word about the film’s formal properties. The color palette is cool, tending toward blues and grays, emphasizing Murielle’s icy emotional alienation, her despair. The several shots of the household at night have an eerie aspect. We see Pinget holding one of his grandchildren gently, his body encompassed almost entirely in darkness, an amber glow framing the left side of his body. This is a horrific variation on chiaroscuro, the sinister element of this aspect of the plastic arts. The camera rarely “opens up” space to place scenes in context. In fact, the very first image is of Murielle in hospital, shot in medium close-up. She asks someone barely discernible on the edge of the frame to “take them to Morocco” (she refers to the dead children, the tragedy having already happened). The cinematography constantly emphasizes claustrophobia and entrapment.
As the end credits roll, we hear the “fac me vere tecum flere” verse from Haydn’s magisterial chorale piece Stabat Mater, the adaptation of the religious text about the sorrows of Mary at the cross of Jesus. The piece, conducted here by Trevor Pinnock, is especially dolorous; the line “Make me truly weep with you” speaking to us, I think, not about seeing Murielle as having something in common with the Virgin Mary (whose image, imposed upon women, may be part of the foundation of their oppression), but about the grief of all women, and therefore a reason for common grieving.
I want to thank Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for bringing this film to my attention.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International. He is currently revisiting Carmina Burana, the most significant example of kitsch in the music canon, as he prepares to write about Salò, or the 101 Days of Sodom.