Our Children, a quietly devastating Belgian domestic drama, opens with a shattered young woman on an IV drip. Then the action moves swiftly back to that same woman, radiantly in love and eager to tell Andre, the man her beloved calls father, that she's planning to marry his boy.
Played with insidious restraint by Niels Arestrup, Andre welcomes Mureille (Emilie Dequenne) into the home he shares with her Moroccan-born intended (Tahar Rahim). Later he'll tag along on the couple's honeymoon, and show himself to be tender and solicitous toward her growing brood of girls, even as he runs a busy medical practice from his home office. When the young couple shows signs of needing to fly the coop, he quickly accommodates them, buying a bigger house for "us." He's a paragon, in short — and over time, a despot on a par with Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers, or with Charles Boyer quietly driving Ingrid Bergman round the bend in Gaslight.
By the time Andre gets through with his busybody management, in fact, just about everything will be run, like that practice, from home — including Mounir, who can't seem to make a go of his own career and ends up working for his adoptive dad. A thousand barely detectable warning signs — fleeting bursts of verbal malice and cruelty, accompanied by agitated strings on the soundtrack — reveal this particular haven as a dictatorship under covert construction. And it's not that Mureille and Mounir don't notice. Both are stuck fast in a web of bullying and generosity, and each wriggles differently, compounding the sense of gathering catastrophe.
Our Children was inspired by a real-life Belgian tragedy, but director Joachim LaFosse has built that news item into his own micro-portrait of coercion dipped in kindness. The influence of Belgium's Dardenne brothers, whose Rosetta won an Academy Award for Dequenne, is all over this character-driven drama, not least in the intense close-ups and obsessive attention to significant detail.
Notably, LaFosse has absorbed the Dardennes' principle that people reveal their truest selves when going about their daily business, and further that they often do the most damage while trying to be good. Andre may ultimately be a monster, but he's a monster who believes he knows what's best for everyone; that makes him lethal, and what holds us is Mureille's unraveling. Dequenne is terrific at showing us how a vibrant, loving young woman and capable teacher can slowly dwindle until she's a straggly-haired wreck, even as she cries out repeatedly for help.
LaFosse's delicate touch (what physical violence there is takes place offscreen, where in this case it belongs) does falter, particularly amid the glaring parallels he draws between domestic tyranny and the colonial sort. Mureille's gradual discovery that Andre has a whole flock of dependents in Morocco gives her a vision of a more genuinely nurturing family, though the near-saintly depiction of Mounir's hapless mother (Baya Belal) is barely credible.
Watching Our Children, I was reminded of Jonathan Karsh's 2003 documentary My Flesh and Blood, about a woman who adopted a small army of severely disabled children. Karsh's well-meaning film all but deifies this compulsive caretaker, but she gets less forgiving fictional treatment from Todd Solondz in his 2004 Palindromes, which gives us the saint as predator. Andre is that dreadful creature, an emotional terrorist who believes in his own propaganda. The consequences are terrible to behold. (Recommended)