KARLOVY VARY, Czech Republic - I don’t why it didn’t occur to me that a film festival located high in the Czech mountains in the middle of summer would be on the warm side, but it didn’t – it’s been a humid few days of filmgoing here at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, even when some films haven’t packed much heat. Handily enough, the air conditioning throughout the festival center apparently chose this weekend to go on the blink, introducing a sauna-like atmosphere to certain screening rooms that, in the words of a glass-half-full Czech critic I overheard yesterday, “intensifies the experience.”

The experience was only moderately de-intensified this evening with an electrical storm that did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the numerous al fresco beer drinkers at this cheerfully youth-populated festival. “The weather here is Karlovy Varied,” remarked a British writer-director, who’d probably rather not be credited with that line, as we joined them. The festival itself may want to reappropriate it for advertising purposes. My viewing list from the last two days has been nothing if not Karlovy varied: it spans, among others, a blissful big-screen return visit to Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samouraï,” a Finnish-Portuguese western inspired by the work of Henry David Thoreau and an erotic Dutch character study understandably – if not quite accurately – described by several critics as a female-focused “Shame.”   

I’ll expand on some of these (particularly “Hemel,” the impressive Dutch effort) in another festival diary entry. Right now, however, the film pressing most heavily on my mind is one that needed no collaborative intensification from the weather gods. I’d like to say smugly that my film of the festival so far – bar “Le Samouraï,” of course, which sits happily above consideration – is an obscure diamond not yet shared with the rest of the festival circuit, but the truth is that it comes instead from Karlovy Vary’s substantial selection of highlights from May’s Cannes Film Festival. Following approving noises from many colleagues, Belgian auteur Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children” (A-) was the film I most regretted missing there; as it turns out, my regret was not misplaced.

“Our Children” is an overly worthy-sounding English title (the French original is the more evocative but less readily translatable “A perdre la raison”) for a film that stoops neither to earnest hand-wringing nor disingenuous shock-raking in its methodical, carefully considered anatomy of an appalling domestic tragedy. The film is closely drawn from, but doesn’t directly document, the global headline-making case of Genevieve Lhermitte, the married, middle-class Belgian woman who killed her five young children with a carving knife before attempting suicide. If that sounds like something you’d rather not see, the act – alluded to in the otherwise strictly linear film’s prologue – is kept cleanly but devastatingly off-screen; the near two-hour psychological build-up to it is punishing enough.

Aware that a story of such grave human weight and consequence demands to be told exactingly if it is to be told at all, Lafosse’s film succeeds most profoundly by refusing to phrase the inevitable question – how could she? – as a rhetorical one. No one (not even, one suspects, the woman herself) could presume to explain what motivated Lhermitte to violate the laws of human nature so unspeakably.

How she did, however, is a different line of investigation, one “Our Children” convincingly and compassionately pursues as it maps out the (im)practical domestic details that left a clinically depressed mother so bereft of oxygen that irrational extremes seemed the only option available to her. Renamed Murielle here, and quite stunningly played by Émilie Dequenne, the character is subjected to one of the most painstaking slow-burn mental breakdowns we’ve seen on screen in recent years. Lafosse and co-writers Matthieu Reynaert and Thomas Bidegain (“A Prophet”) offer no cheap inciting incidents in Murielle’s distressingly seamless descent from bright, loved-up mother-to-be to virtually catatonic mother-of-four (the number is another fact changed), while there’s no catch-all pop psychology pilfered to color in her state of mind.

More compelling, and gradually revealing, is its fixation on the details of her unconventionally oppressive home life. Loved but not guarded by her under-achieving Moroccan husband Mounir (Tahar Rahim), it’s her ostensible father-in-law Andre (Niels Arestrup, his casting cannily echoing the fraught paternal relationship he forged with Rahim in “A Prophet”) who’s the problem. Not a blood relative, but a life mentor who effectively adopted Mounir as a child – with unimpeachable subtlety, Lafosse insinuates that sexual relations may have occurred – Andre, a wealthy GP, permits Mounir to continue living with him after he marries Murielle. As the family expands, Andre becomes an ever-present third parent in the household, his kindness invaluable to Mounir and unbearable to Murielle, who finds her every maternal decision second-guessed by not one but two men of the house.

As Lafosse calmly pushes this claustrophobic domestic triangle to its breaking point, it becomes clear that “Our Children” is not merely a ripped-from-the-headlines horror story, but a more thoughtful and universal study of the unorthodox family unit and the fragility of its gender balance, with even unspoken religious concerns coming into play. We may be frustrated with Murielle for not divorcing her ineffectual husband, or at least not issuing any firmer ultimatums, but she also seems more taken with the tenets of his Muslim background than he does. Many European formalists would take a glassier, more oblique approach to this story, and while Lafosse treats it with appropriate solemnity, he’s not so hat-in-hand as to streamline the messy, fertile emotional impulses of all three complicit principals.

Rahim, effectively muted in a more tethered role than we’re used to seeing him play, and Arestrup repeat the quietly fractious dynamic of their previous teaming, but it’s Dequenne who commands the drama. Obviously more womanly than she was 13 years ago, when she broke through in the Dardenne brothers’ “Rosetta,” she’s nonetheless retained that girlish, wild-eyed volatility, which renders her increasing sense of captivity in this borrowed home all the more palpable. Her gradual, powerless hollowing-out of Murielle’s mental state, achieved without ever resorting to over-fevered tics of mental instability, is astonishing: an extended take that finds her driving, singing along to an overwrought French chanson on the radio, and finally buckling under the weight of its ersatz emotion is altogether heart-stopping.

Any American A-lister performing the same scene would effectively be mailed the Academy Award now. Dequenne shared an irregular Best Actress award at Cannes in Un Certain Regard; she’d likely have walked off with the prize in Competition, where this stately-brutal kick to the stomach also belonged.

Next from Karlovy Vary: a sampling of this year's selection of Variety's 10 European Directors To Watch.

 

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