Venice 2022: Rebecca Zlotowski on the “very personal” “Other people’s children”
In what must first be a film festival, two of the cast of Rebecca Zlotowski’s new drama Other people’s childrenRoschdy Zem and Frederick Wiseman, have their own films – directed by Zem Our time and Wiseman’s A couple — in competition at the Venice Film Festival this year.
This is Zlotowski’s second trip to the Lido after Planetarium starring Natalie Portman, Emmanuel Salinger and Lily-Rose Depp premiered in Venice in 2016. This opulent period drama, starring Portman and Depp as a pair of sisters and spirit mediums touring 1930s France , was a departure for Zlotowski, which won critical acclaim in France. . and on the international circuit with his first two feature films: Beautiful thorn (2010) and Large central (2013), both with Léa Seydoux.
Other people’s children Features Benedetta star Virginie Efira as Rachel, a childless teacher in her 40s (her gynecologist, played by Wiseman, constantly reminds her that her biological clock is ticking). Rachel falls in love with Ali (Zem) and begins to develop an attachment to Leila, her 4-year-old daughter. But she quickly discovers that loving other people’s children can be risky. Wild Bunch is handling the film’s international sales, while CAA Media Finance is handling domestic sales.
Zlotowski spoke with The News84Media before the film’s premiere in Venice.
I understand that this project started very differently, as an adaptation of a book about male impotence.
Yes, it’s funny. I started adapting Romain Gary’s novel Your ticket is no longer valid, which is about the helplessness of a man, and Roschdy Zem was attached from day one to play the main role. Which is weird because this film is now absolutely built around Virginie Efira. It really is the portrait of a woman. It’s interesting in the process that the man came first. I think maybe I was too shy, maybe too shameful at the start to bring up what is a very personal subject for me, as a woman in my 40s with no children and being very surrounded by the question of motherhood. I think at first I couldn’t afford to embrace the subject as head-on as I did with the film. Initially, I needed a male subject to approach it. The process of developing the film was a political release for me. It’s my fifth feature film, but it’s the first time I’ve allowed myself to tackle a very feminine subject.
How did the film change when you started developing it?
I wrote the screenplay myself, during the COVID lockdown. Usually I work with other people, so I can hide a bit in the writing. But here, there was something in the book that concerned me personally. I kept thinking about what the end of fertility meant. Whether it’s a man in a situation of impotence or a woman who reaches 40 and experiences the end of fertility.
Then, and this is the mysterious process of writing, you go back and forth between the personal subject, the social subject and the cinematic aspects of the story. When you have something that brings together all three aspects of writing: the personal, the social, and the cinematic, that’s bingo. I thought: maybe there’s a movie here.
When I told Roschdy that I wanted to adapt Gary’s novel, he was thrilled. He really wanted to play this role. When I finally sent him the script, I said, “There’s a slight change now.” But after reading it, he was happy to do so. He said it was like we were expecting a child together, and it turned out to be a girl instead of a boy. But he’s our child, and we love him.
Was it difficult to tackle such a personal subject in a film that is very direct and does not have a lot of artificial elements to hide behind?
As soon as I accepted that the character I was interested in was the other woman, who is not the mother but the stepmother, the father’s girlfriend, a character who is usually a secondary character, a secondary character in the movies next to the “more interesting” main characters, I knew I had a cinematic subject. Then, I felt very free to be very personal in the writing, and very generous. I also think that the current political moment has played a role. I felt that the industry in France was open to this. When I told my producer about my idea, I could see that he was interested, and maybe 10 years ago that wouldn’t have been the case.
Or maybe I just needed 10 years in this industry to feel confident enough to try to make such a personal thing into a movie thing.
I look a lot like Rachel. I am a Parisian in my early forties. The character is a teacher and I studied to be a teacher at university. I felt this movie could be the dream life, maybe the alternate life, of what could have been for me. And, feeling that I couldn’t have children, I saw the film as a letter to myself, something I needed, both as a director and as a viewer, to help in my situation. Because I couldn’t find this story anywhere, not the way I wanted to show it, with tenderness. Show how you become super attached to a child you are raising but who is not your own. Having strong feminist feelings that you can be complete without children, but still feeling the pain. This kind of complexity I could not find anywhere. So I made the movie.
How did you come to cast Virginie Efira in the main role of Rachel and how did you both shape the character?
Well, she’s one of the best actresses in France. And I like its contradictions. Even its name: Virginie, virgin. Because she’s not a virgin and there’s something about not being a virgin that I loved about her. And I needed a character who was not a virgin, a woman who had another life. When I offered her the screenplay, she said to me: “I have the impression that you wrote this for me because I was this woman, the lover, the mother-in-law. I have been in these situations.
What I find fascinating about your portrayal of Rachel is that, although nothing dramatic happens, the film is incredibly moving.
Thanks, and thanks for noticing. I take it as a compliment. I think it’s a struggle for me to fight for the possibility of bringing another pattern of emotions to triumph in my films. I have the impression that my films are closer to a kind of Asian cinema. When I go to Asia, I think the public has a better understanding of my films and a certain underestimation of the emotions they contain.
Sometimes I feel lonely in mainstream cinema because even when I’m enjoying it I can get super excited about an action movie blockbuster or an exciting Netflix show, but that doesn’t have much to do with the emotions that surround me personally in my life. . The cinema that touches me has another series of emotions, and I have the impression that we need these emotions to triumph a little. Like in Claude Sautet’s films of the 1970s in France. What moves me is when the character cries, and we laugh, and when the character laughs, and we cry. So many movies now give us a very simple form of empathy, where the intensity of the character is meant to be the intensity of our reception. I think that’s a mistake. I think the challenge of our profession, as storytellers and filmmakers, is to do the opposite. Create empathy for someone who wants to be a good person but still hurts someone else.
The film is very dramaturgically structured and very tight, but I tried to make sure everything was inspired by real life and rang true. by Noah Baumbach Marriage story also handles this effect. I feel like any teenager these days who subscribes to Netflix knows all the tricks of the screenwriters. I wanted to make a film that would hold the viewer to the end of their seat, without going through the gestures of conventional writing. To subvert public expectations.
You also subvert conventions in your portrayal of the “other woman.”..
Usually, the depiction of this character in a film would be a caricature, archetypal. She would be the bad guy, the rival. She would be jealous, unhappy and frustrated. But I just can’t understand that. I was that woman, I went through that when you fall in love with someone, and you fall in love with their family. And then, at a certain point, you realize that you are an extra in the story. You know that if you love children, you need to fade easily because they have already gone through something very difficult, which is the divorce of their parents. So you leave. But you still feel something very strong for children.
Oddly enough, it feels like a film that breaks taboos, even if it seems shocking to think that it’s still taboo to talk about women who want to have children but can’t.
I think there is so much pain in both aspects. There is the pain of women who want children and cannot have them. Then there is the pain of women who want abortions, and now, in the United States after the end of Roe v. Wade, it’s a lot harder to do that. I am a French woman, and these struggles [over reproductive rights] have been won. Knock on wood. But we must approach these subjects with complexity and nuance. Ideologically, it could be dangerous to have a scene like in my film, where a woman says she had an abortion at 25 and that today she would have done things differently. But I think that complexity is something we have to deal with honestly. If these subjects are still taboo, it is because they must be approached by people who really know what they are talking about, which in terms of motherhood, it may be women and we are not yet very many make films.
You were inspired by your own writing experience Other people’s children. But then your own life took a turn in the third act.
Yes, after I finished writing the script, when I went into preparation for the film, I found out that I was pregnant! The Hollywood End. I didn’t expect it anymore. I was pregnant shooting the movie. It took nine months to make this movie, and nine months to make my baby. I wrote the film with frustration and pain, then shot it with a real sense of generosity and abundance, which I think really helped me. But you know, I hated it when I told people I didn’t have kids, and they were like ‘your movies are your kids’. Now that I have a child, I can say that making a film is quite the opposite in the spectrum of creation. When you make a film, you control everything. Having a child is being overwhelmed by something you can’t control.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.