Friday, January 24, 2014

Heartbreakers: Our Children and The Past

 Tahar Rahim & Émilie Dequenne in Our Children

The devastating Belgian picture Our Children begins with its heroine, Murielle (Émilie Dequenne), in a post-traumatic condition and then shows us how she got there. (The much better French title is À perdre la raison, or To Lose Your Mind.) At the beginning of the story Murielle marries her Moroccan boy friend, Mounir (Tahar Rahim), and moves in with his unofficial adoptive father, André (Niels Arestrup), a successful doctor who has also invited Mounir into his practice. André is married to Mounir’s older sister, but it’s a paper marriage – a marriage of convenience so that she can get Belgian citizenship – and André’s professional and financial support of Mounir is his way of offering another member of the family a better life in Europe. (In the course of the movie he engineers a second paper marriage between Mounir’s younger brother and Murielle’s sister.) It’s generous of him, but of course there are strings attached. As the couple begins to have children, the communal space they share with André feels more and more constrained, especially since Mounir is always conscious of wanting to please this man who is his mentor and who owns the house they’re living in. But when Murielle suggests they might be happier living in Morocco – the only bond her locked-in world allows her is with Mounir’s warm, solicitous mother (Baya Belal), whom she gets to see too rarely – André explodes at Mounir, accusing him of ingratitude, and Mounir backs down immediately. Meanwhile two children have become too much for Murielle to handle, and when the family expands to five and then six she finds her only outlet in visits to a therapist. Her husband isn’t kind or patient with her; he behaves with an entitled masculinity and has little tolerance for her when she can’t keep the children controlled and out of his hair. You don’t wonder when she grasps her mother-in-law in a desperate embrace before they put her on a plane back to Morocco – she sorely needs the comfort that only another woman can provide. (Her sister isn’t especially giving.)

The movie, sensitively directed by Joachim Lafosse from an excellent screenplay he wrote with Thomas Bidegain and Matthieu Reynaert, is about a situation that’s kept in place by considerable gerrymandering and that feels profoundly wrong – to Murielle, though she lacks the nerve and the emotional support to change it, and to us. Most of us probably don’t have strong feelings about the ethics of rigged marriages; we’re content to live and let live. But everything about André’s intervention in the lives of Mounir and his siblings is unsettling, and the more he does to help them the more beholden Mounir is to him, and the tighter the rope that restrains Murielle and cuts her off from the possibility of happiness. She doesn’t express her discomfort with André, but we can guess that she intuits what we’ve worked out – that his feelings for her husband are crypto-homoerotic and he views her as a rival. And the borderline legality of his own marriage and Mounir’s kid brother’s don’t occupy the only ethical gray zone in the story. André also plays the role of the family doctor who sends Murielle to her therapist; he warns her not to reveal the nature of their relationship because it represents a conflict of interest and compromises the therapist. So when Murielle inevitably slips up the therapist refuses to continue to work with André, and Murielle, desperate, lies to André that her work with the therapist has come to a natural end – while in truth she continues to see her because she feels she’s holding onto her sanity by a thread. The moment when the therapist, her calm demeanor tamping down a tone of alarm, lists all the reasons for her concern over the multiple roles André plays in Murielle’s life underscores our own sense that her domestic life is built on dubious foundations and is swaying in the wind.

Niels Arestrup & Tahar Rahim
Arestrup gives another fine performance as a man whose tyrannical behavior is motivated by desires he may not even be fully aware of. You may have seen Arestrup in one or more of his incarnations over the past few years – as the friend of the hero of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly who took his place aboard an international flight and ended up kidnapped by terrorists, as the farmer in War Horse, as the peasant who gives a home to a Jewish child during the Holocaust in Sarah’s Key – but he slips in and out of these characters so deftly that you’re never conscious of him outside the frame of his roles. He’s a master actor, the actor as incarnation. As Murielle, the superlative actress Émilie Dequenne carries her escalating misery and terror in the bones of her delicate face. The movie begins by telling us that something terrible has occurred and as it proceeds our dread grows until we’re fairly sure we know what it is – and then past that moment, as we wait for the inevitable. But it’s not the kind of dread manufactured by horror-movie schlockmeisters; it’s more like the dread you feel in a Greek tragedy. In Our Children, Dequenne’s extraordinary face is its emblem.

Bérénice Béjo in The Past

In The Past, written and directed by the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, Samir (Tahar Rahim) returns to Paris from Tehran to finalize his divorce from a Frenchwoman, Marie (Bérénice Béjo, of The Artist) and visit his former stepdaughters, whom he has missed. The family, he finds, is in a distressed transitional state. Marie now lives with Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), whose little boy, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), is around the same age as her daughter Léa (Jeanne Jestin). Though the children get along, Fouad is uneasy in his new surroundings; he longs for his mother, who is in a coma following a suicide attempt, and he tends to act out, especially when he’s left alone with Marie. Her adolescent daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), doesn’t like Ahmad and spends as much time as possible away from home so she doesn’t have to see him. Marie feels she’s lost the ability to handle her and hopes that while he’s in Paris Samir, whom both the girls adore, might be able to talk some sense into her.

Farhadi, who also made A Separation, seems to specialize in dramas about people bound up in hopelessly complicated domestic scenarios. The idea of The Past is that none of the characters, even the youngest, has the freedom to live in the present because the past hovers over everyone – it’s embodied in the (mostly) off-screen comatose mother and the returning husband and stepfather whose presence both creates the illusion of continuity with that past and provides an aching reminder that it’s gone forever. And not just for the girls: Lucie insists that her mother took up with another Iranian man because he reminded her of Samir. The narrative partly takes the form of a mystery over the thorny facts surrounding Ahmad’s wife’s attempt to kill herself but it takes its power from the characters’ load of guilt and uneasiness and their inability to resolve their feelings about themselves and their relationships. Farhadi has drawn them beautifully and his work with all the actors is impeccable, especially with Pauline Burlet and the astonishingly expressive little Elyes Aguis. These two bring to their scenes the urgency of the young, who lack the perspective to imagine themselves out of their present unhappiness and thus are in a fervor of panic. This movie, like Our Children, seems to take place in an emergency room of the soul.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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