Step-Motherhood Gets the Spotlight in Rebecca Zlotowski’s ‘Other People’s Children’

Some films spring from abundance, while others are born of a need. Premiering in competition in Venice, Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Other People’s Children” clearly falls into the latter camp. “I’ve often used cinema as a guide for living, only aspects of my own life hadn’t been told,” Zlotowski tells Variety. “I imagined a 40-year-old woman, nearing the end of her fertility, who is a stepmother to others, and thought, why hadn’t we seen that character before?”  

Filling in the missing pieces, Zlotowski’s romantic drama follows Rachel (Virginie Efira), a Parisian high school teacher who feels a sudden and unrealized desire for maternity when she falls in love with a recent divorcé – and with him, his four-year-old daughter. Tinged in bittersweet tones, the film tracks the ecstasies of a new and all-enveloping love affair and the tradeoffs that arrive with mid-life relationships. Because in this particular love-triangle – as common in the real world as it is rare on screen – there are certain bonds a new partner cannot join.

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“I wanted to explore those secondary figures in other narratives,” says Zlotowski. “I love that American term ‘the rebound,’ when you feel like an afterthought to someone you love. It happens, and you need the humility to admit it. So by romanticizing and exalting those characters, I figured I could avenge them!”

And after exploring questions of class and social rank in films like “Grand Central” and “An Easy Girl,” the director aimed at a more intimate register here. “It took me a long time to tell stories that sprang more from my body and less from my brain,” she says. “I wanted to be upfront, more candid than usual, without minding if people made the connection with my personal life. And affirming that this could be the subject of a film does carry a political dimension.”

Still, in tracking the complex inner-life of a self-assured woman, professionally accomplished and personally fulfilled, but always riven by a hungry heart and pangs of regret, the filmmaker’s primary goal was to deliver a well-rounded character study. “The film is a site of feeling, of affect, of contradiction,” she says. “The central question is one of transference. What does it mean to impart values to another generation, and how can you do so when you don’t have children? That’s why it was so important to make the lead character a teacher, to emphasize her relationship with her students.”

“When Rachel says that somewhere she’s even proud to belong to this community of women without children you have to believe her,” Zlotowski continues. “And it is a real community – a community to which I send a message of love and solidarity.”

Of course, those questions of family and community also play into “Other People’s Children” on a somewhat metatextual level. For one thing, the filmmaker cast her own father, the interpreter Michel Zlotowski, to play a similar role in the film. “He had the time and I could get him for a good price,” she laughs. “And why go looking for another actor when my father was available, a good actor, and was the person I thought about while writing the role?”

(Incidentally, if Michel Zlotowski might present an unfamiliar face, as one of the key French to English live interpreters for the Cannes Film Festival, his voice is already widely known across the industry.)

And given that this year’s Venice competition slate also includes films directed by Roschdy Zem (“Our Ties”) and Frederick Wiseman (“A Couple”), the fact that both turn up in Zlotowski’s film – with Zem playing the co-lead – lends the project a somewhat auspicious air. If mostly a happy accident and fun bit of trivia, the coincidence does speak to the sense of community that Zlotowski tries to build both onscreen and off.

“Visconti said that Italian cinema declined when the directors could no longer stand each other,” says Zlotowski. “By staying allies and friends we can build a strong film culture. [And] I love the idea of shared filmmaking, because working with people who can express their opinions, who are themselves cinephiles, just boosts you. If every member of the team feels responsible for the success of the film, then I too have succeeded.”

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