In Our Loved Ones, Québécois director Anne Émond makes the physical closeness of loved ones tangible. There’s intimacy in every moment shared between family members here, often expressed through the sound design that highlights barely perceptible noises. Whether it’s the breath of a partner lying in bed next to you or the thump of a tight hug, Émond has a gift for making you feel like you’re there in that moment, where being near someone is a form of comfort.
This is essential for a film that is about a family caught in cycles of grief. It begins when the patriarch commits suicide, twenty years in the past. From here, we follow his son David (Maxim Gaudette). He visits his sister while grieving, which leads him to his wife. We skip to years later as he’s becoming the patriarch of a new family, as scared and confused as we imagine his father must have been.
Decades pass, but emotional scars left behind from the event remain visible — especially for David’s younger brother (Mikael Gouin), who was the one to find his father dead and spends years in a tailspin because of it. Grief unites the family, who only really feel solid, whole, and connected when physically close to one another. Even the way they stand together in a room, preparing a meal, speaks of years of shared space and intimacy.
Émond plays with time, jumping ahead several years at a time without notice, as David grows into a father of two. As his daughter Laurence (Karelle Tremblay) ages, the film shifts focus to her life, starting around age 16, while her father fades into the background, both literally — Émond blurs his figure in the frame — and figuratively. He feels his increasing irrelevance even as they share a close relationship, but he also marvels at her with pride. It eventually becomes clear that Émond’s real interest is in Laurence, how she copes with growing up and her changing relationship with her father. But having followed David’s trajectory allows us to see him as a flawed, young person, like Laurence is. It draws attention to the cycle of life.
The teenaged Laurence falls head-over-heels in love. She’s forced to deal with unexpected left turns and find her way in the world. Although every scene between David and his wife, Laurence’s mother, seems tender and sweet, the central relationship of the film is between father and daughter. We wait to see how Laurence grows out of him and replaces him, while also watching for the ways he’ll always be essential and present.
Because the film spans decades, any small detail introduced early in the film accumulates greater resonance by the end. The song David plays on his guitar to woo his wife soon becomes a part of family history, an inside joke to be pulled out and smiled at from time to time, remembering what it has meant even as each performance gives it new meaning. The red notebook that Laurence had used as a diary and David read without permission becomes a reminder of the boundaries he broke and the ease with which she would forgive him when she needed him.
Set largely in the beautiful small town in Bas-Saint-Laurent, Québec, the specificity of the locations is crucial. Each place is tangled up with events we witness on screen and recall when the characters return to the sites in later years. The long shots of the landscape full of colour add a romanticism to the setting, making the place feel so idyllic that the memory and nostalgia that Laurence acquires feel earned.
Although the deaths in the film are a useful device to bring the family together and show the passage of time, the suicide is under-motivated. Just because it may seem baffling to family members when a suicide happens doesn’t mean it’s entirely unexplained. We’d expect to see signs of depression or other mental health issues. The end result may be a surprise, but there are usually signs. For a family that seems mostly harmonious, the fact that suicide looms large even as Émond suggests this is not the result of a genetic chemical instability (why isn’t anyone in therapy anyway?), becomes increasingly implausible and shoehorned in as a plot device.
Yet it hardly matters. Even as her mother and father recede into the distance, Laurence becomes more and more intriguing and complicated. She’s wrestling with adulthood, memory, family obligation, and confusion. We experience things viscerally with Laurence, as alive to sound and touch as she is. When she goes for a swim, we hear the light movement of water around her and we watch her face in tight closeup. When she goes in for a hug with her brother from her mother, Émond hones in on how her mother brushes away the hair on Laurence’s face, providing comfort with her touch. For its interest in memory and family dynamics, Our Loved Ones would make for a great pairing with Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs. It’s instinctive where Bombs is intellectual. Together, they almost complete each other.