There’s a tender empathy emanating from every frame of Rebecca Zlotowski’s latest feature Other People’s Children. The French director’s latest work stars Virginie Efira in her finest performance to date, playing a woman who forms a special bond with her boyfriend’s daughter as she juggles professional and personal responsibilities. It’s a film of equal charm and quiet heartbreak with Zlotowski expertly weaving in each subplot to form a complete picture of universal quandaries of love in different forms.
When Zlotowski was in town for the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema premiere, I had the opportunity to speak with her about the difficult of capturing everyday feelings, finding magical moments throughout the film, the movies that influenced her, Frederick Wiseman’s cameo, and more. As the film begins its U.S. release, check out the conversation below.
The Film Stage: I love how focused this film is on character, and you put a lot of trust in the audience that they’ll be invested by these little details and moments throughout the entire movie rather than plot-focused developments. In the process of writing the film, how consciously were you pulling back on adding more dramatic moments?
Rebecca Zlotowski: I don’t know if it’s going to be a proper answer, but I could feel that there was a specific challenge with this film, and it was that I had to tell a moving story without any plot twists, without any punches in the narrative and the fact that even people would be nice! That is a challenge because it’s easier to have very strong scenes where people are yelling at each other or being super-antagonistic. So it was definitely a thematic and formal challenge to engage the audience in a very tender yet still cruel way at the end, because there’s definitely a certain string that moves in your heart when people try to be very good to each other and still hurt each other.
So I would say that it was a very hormonal way of writing. And I’m not saying this in a feminine way––it could be masculine as well––but it was literally like a chemical process. Maybe this film is about that. It’s about how you write to be sincere with a very simple story, because the triviality, the banalness of the story was the beginning of the project. And how can you engage with an audience to wait for the details? That was the whole difficulty of the script.
You open with a few clips of Roger Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons. There are some thematic connections there, but I’m curious when you knew that would be the opening scene.
It’s both musical and thematic. The fact that it’s on Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica,” which is a very enchanting beginning for a film. These musical notes are connected to Paris for me in a way, so that it was maybe an equal to those rom-coms that start on a glittering, shiny shot of the city that you’re going to set up the film in. And so there was the musical aspect of it, the fact also that she’s the French teacher in high school and it’s definitely the kind of novel that you would need to study when you are of this age and this culture, and the fact that it’s also an adaptation that I love because I’m a strong admirer of Jeanne Moreau and Roger Vadim. So I thought that it makes sense––everything made sense––and when you have, like, a good idea that is musical, it’s good. Visually, it’s really good. Thematically, it’s interesting. And the fact that she can have fun and say it’s not going to last, it’s going to end badly, and you know it’s going to be a very bad and cruel ending. I thought it was a very good hint and metaphysical warning and a comic one for the film.
Other People’s Children premiere at Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Photo by Zhen Qin.
When you started developing this, it was going to be a more male-focused story, an adaptation of a book. When in the process did you realize it was going to center on a female character, and when did Virginie come on board? She gives perhaps her greatest performance in this film.
Thank you. I feel the same. Very simply, I would say that during the pandemic, the fact that I’ve been stuck in my domestic place like everyone and I had no one to look at except me and my companion and his children. Usually I use cinema as a tool to escape from my domestic places and the people I was surrounded with this time––it was just my bedroom, the paper on the walls, the mirror in front of me. And this time I just understood that maybe it was the first time I felt so entitled to feel that this character that was in front of me, that was me, would be interesting as well. And why not? We are allowed to experience that, so I felt strong enough after four films to say, ”It’s not going to be this man’s portrait of impotency.” These themes are really connected to me and I’m very sincere about why I want to adapt it, wanting to debunk certain stereotypes and negatives.
Then Virginie came because we had a rendez-vous we missed one or two times. Not only is she absolutely connected to the age of the character, she emerged to arthouse cinema at 40. Even when she was not 40 she was 40 because in her first films that impacted me, even if she was 35, she would play a 40-year-old woman. She was like “Okay, come on, let’s say yes to the part because it’s so smart.” But she emerged in the decade of being 40. So with this very character, it was absolutely Virginie. And she has a connection to emotion that’s necessary to the character.
If there’s an American film about the biological clock, it’s very much treated almost like a screwball comedy or it’s a subplot in a movie and not treated with the nuance and subtlety that you do here. Is this any sort of French tradition that you’re following in cinema, or are you trying to carve a new path to take on this universal subject with more nuance than it’s had before?
I don’t know if it’s French, maybe? [Laughs] But it’s also, I feel, that it’s time to tell those stories––not only with a political approach, which means that you do not have to make the two women that are around the man be rivals. You do not have to be a feeling that a child of a woman that you love is taking love out of you but, on the contrary, brings love. I would say that city life and society is an advance on cinema representation. And I can tell, because sometimes I miss certain representations of behaviors that I have in my life and that I can’t find in cinema. I’ve seen a lot of behaviors in cinema that sometimes people want to reproduce in their lives as well. You have people in your life––sometimes they behave as they saw in a film, but you don’t have the opposite. You don’t have the film that’s like our lives. Sometimes I feel lonely with my heart because I try to behave well––not in a Catholic, Christian or Jewish thing, just because I feel that we all try, and eventually in the end we hurt each other, which is maybe the French part or the Jewish part. But I wanted to strongly advocate for a different breed of emotions and the fact that this pattern is frequent in our lives and not often screened because it’s more difficult. It’s more difficult to create a good scene without being mean, cruel, or hysterical.
With the cinematography, there are so many great touches. I think of the scene where she’s talking with Roschdy––she’s saying she doesn’t think she has much time left. He says we have all the time in the world, and you’re only focused only on their hands. And it’s, like, such a beautiful moment. Can you talk about your approach to cinematography in general? There’s such a natural feeling, but then at the same time, there are these magical moments peppered throughout.
Thank you very much. Georges Lechaptois, who has been my DP since day one, my first film, he’s not French, even if his name seems French. He’s Chilean and he’s amazing. He’s a great artist. I’m very surprised that he’s not recognized enough in France because he’s very shy and he’s not mingling with the industry. But he’s the best to me. He has the perfect approach to the characters. We decided with this film, which is different from the first one we did, visually. He’s not on the shoulder. We lock the camera. Since the last two films, I really love the long focal, which means you’re very close to the skin of the character, but you’re far away. It blurs behind you, like portrait mode on your iPhone. It’s beautiful, especially when we were shooting during the pandemic––you have nothing behind you, just the lights. So you can blur the fact that you’re cheap and you have no one behind. [Laughs] Also because it gives very good space to the characters.
It’s funny that you mentioned this very specific scene because, actually, the sound of the scene was not supposed to be set up in the streets. It was in a bed and they had this long conversation about what she wants. She may be too old, and are they using a condom or not? I remember my producer saying, “She’s a pain in the ass! They are in the bed, they should just have sex. She’s super-boring, you know?” I was like “Yeah, I’m sorry. This is like a very autobiographical film. I’m sorry. This is the kind of places where you have these conversation.” But then there was something that we had to put some distance between, what she says and the place where says it. And so these shots of hands were absolutely disconnected from what she says. And I had the idea with my editor Geraldine Mangenot that it would be the perfect moment to connect them. The poetic cinematography makes you pay attention and you hear what they say, but it’s not too strong. I like to use image like music and sounds. It’s just that sometimes it brings you so deeply in a poetic way out of your body that you can have another layer.
That’s beautiful. It’s a great touch. You have also mentioned a few films that influenced you, including Shoot the Moon and An Unmarried Woman. Can you talk about those films have impacted you and how they informed your approach here?
So it’s different for all of them. It’s funny because I was spending a week in New York and I discovered Metrograph, which is a nice, wonderful place, and they were playing An Unmarried Woman and I was attracted by the title. Because I was an unmarried woman. Even if I have a family, I’m still an unmarried woman and I feel it’s a very strong title. And I feel that there’s something about Jill Clayburgh that I can relate to. I can relate to her femininity. I can relate to that she was amazingly gorgeous, but still never in an affected way. So An Unmarried Woman was all about Jill Clayburgh and a connection with these woman portraits, which is like a subgenre in films that I feel like Other People’s Children belongs to.
For Shoot the Moon by Alan Parker, it helped me in two different ways. The first one was that I loved the story so much and you can tell this is a strong autobiographical tale by the director, but you can also say that he did Midnight Express after and Flashdance before. The film is in-between them, and I felt that it was powerful. He gave me a hand, saying it’s possible to make these very small autobiographical films that you feel that you are ashamed to do because it’s just something too personal. Particularly in a filmography where you have other types of projects, it unstressed me to, in a way, to do it. And also you can be simple about a moment in your personal life and it creates a strong equal with other people.
Kramer vs. Kramer was another. It was lacking a narrative for a very topical thing that a lot of people were experiencing and I wanted Other People’s Children to be part of that kind of films that at a certain moment in history say “Okay, this is the situation that everyone is going through and no one pays attention in film and it will be tailored to this specific societal moment that we feel it’s not important enough to be looked at sincerely, but actually it could help it.” So I would say those were helpful films.
One of the most delightful parts of the movie is Frederick Wiseman’s cameo. How did you come about collaborating with him and what was his vibe like on set?
It was fun. [Laughs] He’s like his name: like the wise man. He brought a lot of comedy. He came by surprise in the film. I didn’t write it thinking of him, but we are friends because he lives in Paris. He’s such an amazingly curious director and eager to meet people, even if he’s nearly 100 years old. As a cinephile and a filmmaker, I’m his #1 fan. He’s happy and curious when you offer parts, and I knew he had cameos in other films. I was like, “How come you are playing in other films by not mine?” He was like “Yeah, I’m just waiting for you.” And because he’s so old and he’s going to die, going from one minute to another, it had to be this one. I cannot take the risk to wait for another film, so I just read the script and thought the gynecologist part was probably the only one that he could do and also that it had comedy in it and it was super-interesting.
So as soon as I understood that he may be in the film, I just saw only the positive input of his presence in the film and it created, like, a huge strong sense for me. Also I feel like, on a psychoanalytical level, there’s something in the film about what is the transmission, what are we going to let go on after we die? And there’s definitely something in filming his amazingly beautiful face and voice and the fact that he says “Okay, life is long.” It is literally the line he has. And I’m sorry to be so dark. I hope you’re going to live for, like, a hundred more years, but it is a reason to film people as well.
Yes, he has a lot of life in him. When he came to the New York Film Festival he was dancing in the halls before his Q&A.
I went skiing with Fred Wiseman four years ago. He skis better than I did. Maybe not. [Laughs]
There are some subplots in the film that add such a warmth and flesh out Virginie’s character, like with the student and, as you mentioned, with Chiara Mastroianni’s character, where they have the line where they shouldn’t be fighting over a man. Can you talk about finding a balance of adding these supporting characters?
The interesting thing is that the whole women’s portrait in this very specific film is about what happens when a supporting character becomes the protagonist. What happens when you have a usually secondary character, like the stepmom, and you drag her into the first position? So if you do that, you have to pay attention to the secondary characters as if they were the protagonists of another film. Sometimes I see films by amazingly gifted filmmakers like Xavier Dolan, which are protagonist films. This character has to be the protagonist of the film and you’re literally looking at the most interesting person in the room and the others are maybe behind just a little bit and not understanding what he’s experiencing. You have a certain sensation of solitude with the main character because he’s not understood. I have a totally different perception of reality. I feel that we all try very hard to understand and to be empathetic to others. And so as soon as you have this kind of approach of writing of the characters, it becomes pretty easy.
It’s just that they are here not only because of a function; they are here because of a musical moment in your life. I make mistakes sometimes. For instance, in the film we should see Chiara Mastroianni in another scene and she’s not there. For instance, like at the hospital where the kid is not hurt, but they’ve been scared, we should have seen the mother and we would have understood, maybe better, something that is hidden in the ellipses of the script, is that they go back together at the end. So sometimes I create mistakes, but it’s just a balance in the script.
For my last question, I was wondering what comes next. I saw Noémie Merlant came aboard for Emmanuelle. Are you done with that project now that you wrote the script, or are done with it now?
I just wrote on the first draft of the script so it’s not a project I can express myself, and I’ll let Audrey [Diwan] and Noémie take the hand on the narrative. I love Noémie Merlant and I think she’s an amazing actress.
Yeah, I just got to see The Innocent at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema and she’s great in it.
She’s so good. Did you like the film?
Yeah, it is super fun. Are you working on any other scripts to direct?
[Pauses] I do not have a special secret, it’s just that it’s too soon to talk about it.
I’ll let you know. [Laughs]
Other People’s Children opens on Friday, April 21.