“Our Children” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St., as part of its Spotlight Cinema series. Not rated, 1:51, three stars out of four.
“Our Children” opens in the aftermath of a horrifying event, one of those unspeakable tragedies that we hear about on cable news and come away a little more convinced that there must be evil in the world. Writer-director Joachim Lafosse gives us a sense of the what, and then the rest of “Our Children” goes back in time to show us the how and, as much as it can be possible to understand, the why.
Murielle (Emily Dequenne) and Mourir (Tahar Rahim) are introduced as a young couple in love, all over each other in the car. They plan to get married, and their future seems set — Mourir is a Moroccan immigrant who lives with a wealthy physician, Dr. Pinget (Niles Arestrup), who seems perfectly happy to provide for his young ward and his new family. If something about the casting rings familiar, Rahim and Arestrup were the leads in Jacques Audiard’s fantastic prison drama “A Prophet.”
In that film, the struggle for power between Rahim’s wily young inmate and Arestrup’s veteran crime boss was overt; here, the relationship between Pinget and Mourir is hard to pin down. It’s paternal, in some ways, although there were rumors that Mourir offered more than friendship in exchange for the doctor’s largesse. Pinget seems like a good man, is certainly more than generous, but there are strings attached to his generosity. As the couple marry and begin having children, Pinget is a looming presence, always happy to help but also happy to make decisions. You get the feeling that he bought himself a family, and he’s certainly going to get his money’s worth.
The psychological tension between the three adults is subtle and complex, and it builds in the household as Murielle gives birth to one child, then the next. Mourir, feeling emasculated by Pinget’s presence but unable or unwilling to say anything, starts to become harsher towards Murielle, treating her as if she was a wayward child. Pinget is dismissive of Murielle — he wanted a son and grandchildren, not a daughter-in-law. And, slowly, the pressure starts to build on the harried, stressed-out mother, who can call almost no part of her life her own. Lafosse films many scenes through doorways and from behind corners, building both a sense of intimacy and an undeniable tension.
The dread I felt while watching “Our Children” was a milder strain of what I felt while watching “We Need to Talk About Kevin”; while I didn’t know all the details, I knew where this was going, and it was going to end badly. With restrained, naturalistic performances, especially from Dequenne, who seems to drown before our eyes, this is a hard movie to watch but worth the experience.