The major drama happens upfront in “Our Struggles”; the process of living with its less eventful but consistently taxing fallout, however, is where the meat of Guillaume Senez’s simple, affecting new film lies. Peering into the frown lines left where domestic and professional strife intersect, Senez’s film adopts a tone as straightforward as its title in portraying a dedicated but over-burdened father whose lot intensifies when his wife, out of the blue, walks out on him and their two young children. Like “Kramer vs. Kramer” shot through with the honest workplace politics at which contemporary French cinema excels, Senez’s stout-hearted follow-up to his justly acclaimed debut “Keeper” is less arduous than it sounds, with pockets of joy and hopeful release tucked amid its harder stretches. It might be too low-key to make arthouse waves internationally, but the sturdy star presence of Romain Duris in the lead should serve this Franco-Belgian production well on home turf.
Senez’s sophomore effort, which premiered as a special screening in Critics’ Week at Cannes, acts as a thematic bookend of sorts to his debut’s wise, clear-eyed study of two 15-year-olds deciding to go through with an accidental pregnancy: Both films candidly foreground the nitty-gritty challenges of parenting in compromised circumstances, whilst keeping both sentimentality and overt miserablism at bay. If it packs a slightly softer punch than “Keeper,” that’s perhaps because shifting the narrative focus to a strong-but-sensitive middle-aged man gives it more well-worn emotional stakes, but “Our Struggles” still marks its Belgian helmer as a humanist filmmaker of rare subtlety and perceptiveness, on a comparable path to that of his compatriots the Dardenne brothers.
Early scenes establish Olivier (Duris) as a fundamentally decent man quick to shoulder the weight of other people’s problems. A team leader at the central warehouse for a major online retailer, he routinely needles management to protect the rights of his co-workers, but cruelly realizes the limits of his powers when elderly colleague Jean-Luc (Jeupeu) commits suicide after being coldly laid off. Yet as Olivier wrestles with matters of guilt and professional responsibility in the wake of this tragedy, he’s perhaps less attentive than he could be to domestic fault lines. Though their household is ostensibly a loving one, Olivier’s wife Laura (Lucie Debay) appears to be battling some form of depression, keeping it inside even as it begins to cloud her behavior: For one thing, it appears she caused the accident that left third-degree burns on the chest of their stoic eight-year-old son Elliot (Basile Grunberger).
That latent discontent is brought harshly home to Olivier when Laura simply disappears one afternoon, leaving no details of her whereabouts — though the police, refusing to launch a missing persons case, conclude that she doesn’t want to be found. Olivier is caught between his impulse to chase, to proactively problem-solve, and his parental obligation to keep the home sphere as stable as possible for Elliot and his younger sister Rose (Lena Girard Voss), all while managing growingly fraught tensions at work. While the back-to-back misfortunes of Jean-Luc’s death and Laura’s walkout show him that he cannot fix every situation, Senez and Raphaëlle Desplechin’s sober, sensitive screenplay steers clear of pat, generalized life lessons. No individuals are held to blame in this devastating pile-up of events, though corporate bodies certainly are; life simply bends people in random and demanding ways, and some are more elastic than others.
As carefully and empathetically observed as the cumulative hardship in “Our Struggles,” meanwhile, are the moments of levity — some deliberate, some serendipitous — that keep the characters going, be it a child’s birthday party thrown in a making-the-best-of-it spirit or a hasty, to-hell-with-it office fling. In a film performed with delicacy and integrity across the board, the wonderful Laetitia Dosch (a previous Senez collaborator, fresh from her breakout role in Léonor Serraille “Jeune Femme”) is a veritable Roman candle of quickfire light and energy as Olivier’s kooky actress sister Betty: Adored by the children, she briefly animates the dejected household when she comes to help out for a few days, only for an air of fretfulness to resume the minute she leaves.
Betty has her own struggles to attend to, of course; everybody does in “Our Struggles.” Senez’s unassuming but deeply humane film finds no sentimental solutions or homilies to guide its characters through — merely the assurance that even one bad day isn’t quite like the next.