Other People's Children, Rebecca Zlotowski

Director Rebecca Zlotowski on Her Most Autobiographical Film ‘Other People’s Children’

Director Rebecca Zlotowski talks with PopMatters about her most autobiographical film to date, Other People’s Children, which has a “whiff” of Claude Sautet about it.

Other People's Children (Les enfants des autres)
Rebecca Zlotowski
17 March 2023

Rebecca Zlotowski’s sixth feature, Other People’s Children (Les enfants des autres), brings with it creative freedom for the director. Her 2010 feature debut, Belle Épine, tells the story of a drug and alcohol-fuelled self-discovery for two girls who bond after they are arrested. With Other People’s Children, Zlotowski says, “I feel freer from film to film, to reach the core of my emotions, my real necessities and problems.” Does this film paint a self-portrait?  Other People’s Children seems to contain some essence of its director – drawing from her personal experiences as a stepmother and a desire for a child of her own. “I think my therapy is going better,” she jokes.

“I’m definitely the kind of person that’s moving from one project to the next”, she says. “I like to think of filmmakers as people that are analysing the moment and the world. I like this political aspect of my profession. I don’t know what my films say about me, and I’m probably not the right person to explain.”

She reveals that in the beginning, she felt Other People’s Children‘s story was “too feminine” and “too girly” for serious consideration. One senses a tomboyish side to Zlotowski’s personality and wonders whether this could have contributed to those negative feelings about her own script. She explains that she had to get to a place where she considered the story wasn’t so narrow in its scope. Clearly, those initial doubts faded.

Other People’s Children centres on Rachel (Virginie Efira), a 40-year-old teacher. She could be content with her life if something were not missing – a family, but most of all, a child. She falls in love with Ali (Roschdy Zem) and embraces being a stepmother to his four-year-old daughter Leïla (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves). Over time, Rachel struggles with the pressure of time running out to conceive and being with a man who may not be ready for another child, let alone the doubts about whether there’s a future with Ali, whose ex-wife Alice (Chiara Mastroianni) is still part of his life.

Zlotowski tells me, “To make a film, you need to have two or three strong things. The first is it has to be personal. The second is it not only has to be personal, but it has to touch a lot of people – if not, it’s just a replicative object. The third thing is it has to make sense in the history of cinema. It has to be something new because if it’s not, it’s not worth doing.”

She speaks about cinema with reverence, where filmmaking is not a banal act but a deep form of communication. This goes to the roots of why she chose to make films, a decision that liberated her from a claustrophobic academic future teaching literature. If she had taken that path, she would have been shut away from the hustle and bustle of life, which clearly energises her.  “I was unhappy that I’d spend my life studying in a high school or a university. My love of literature, writing, and cinema, observing and imitating life, led me to make and craft films. I became a filmmaker because I was a cinephile and a reader.”

Another reason for her career choice is she feels that intertextuality is all around us. Fondly remembering her student days, she says, “Being a student was the best years of my life because I’ve always been eager to understand that there are secret paths between the different forms.” She adds, “I remember being struck by structuralism because it looked at the things around me as size and semiology. I felt that cinema was the perfect field for that because it’s supposed to represent reality.” 

She reveals that being an artist was not considered an option when she was younger. She declares her modest family was what the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, would describe as “cultural capitalist.” First, as a student, then teaching cinema, her initial field of research was documentary – music documentaries, mockumentaries, and cinéma vérité. This, however, contradicts the impression she has of herself. “The funny thing is, I sometimes like to picture myself as a stylish director, who foremost likes stylisation, but it was realism in cinema that first led me to enjoy it and identify with it.” 

When she eventually went to film school, she admits it was a way to delay getting a job, having already graduated in literature studies. “I needed time between graduating and going out to work at twenty-years-old. I was too young; I was a baby. So I went to film school because it was free.” She continues, “I didn’t have any plan to direct until I eventually realised that cinema can help you understand your own secrets.” She then declares, “You’re a cinephile like I am. You know that movies are made for orphaned people, “unfuckable people”, and people that feel lonely.”

It’s a provocative statement at this juncture in our conversation, but her words resonate because in stories, we can meet new friends. If, like François Truffaut, there are people, including lonely persons and social misfits, that happen to prefer the reflection of life to life itself, then why would cinema not be a sanctuary? 

This is where cinema, as an escape or as a form of therapy, can become blurred. If Zlotowski is aware of the therapeutic perspective in films, she’s hesitant to affirm it for both the spectator and the filmmaker. At the beginning of our interview, after all, she joked about Other People’s Children containing some of her essence. “Other People’s Children is the most autobiographical material I’ve done,” she says. “I was ashamed because I’m not fetishistic about the autobiography. I took a lot of personal aspects, and it could appear as a therapeutic object, but I don’t believe in therapy with films.” She admits, “It’s definitely the life I could have led if I hadn’t had a baby during the making of the film.”

Other People’s Children carries with it the spirit of French cinema of the past. Zlotowski is non-committal about this, unsure whether it’s about the past or memory, but she tells me, “When I’m in France, I’m afraid to say it because we should never say that we’re inspired by French masters like Claude Sautet, but there’s the perfume of Sautet in the film.”

Describing the film as “a pure object of pleasure”, Other People’s Children is undeniably light and playful, albeit with darker, even tragic undertones. This includes the intimate scenes between Rachel and Ali that have an eroticism, sensitivity, and humour that is offset by the question of objectification. Zlotowski and her cinematographer George Lechaptois’ gaze is attentive to Ali’s body in moments; however, the focus on Rachel’s body is the acceptance of female over male nudity, which sustains the objectification of women.

The director, however, doesn’t attribute her female point-of-view as an influence on how her actors are framed and positioned. “I definitely feel there’s a female and a male gaze, but I’m not connecting them to gender,” she says. “David Lean probably has the most feminine gaze of any director I’ve seen.” She continues, “If my sex scenes, or the way I film men and women are different, I hope it’s not because I’m a woman, but I’m a Jewish woman, I’m a Parisian woman, and I used to be an academic, so those layers create who I am.”

Returning to her earlier reflections about the experiences of writing Other People’s Children, Zlotowski remembers, “There’s something about the organicity of the writing in this film that was difficult for me in the beginning because nothing happens. It’s so trivial, it’s the most banal story, and I was ashamed.” She continues, “I feel this is probably the best script I’ve ever written because I can tell the script is organic. We want to ask what’s going to happen next, like in real life, but only as an observer of real life.”

These are sometimes sad and tragic observations in Other People’s Children, and Zlotowski admits that her original ending was too cruel, and she was compelled to lighten it. “Rachel sees Ali in the park. He’s with Leïla, and the three of them don’t have a relationship anymore – that’s still in the film. But then Ali is seated next to a woman who is pregnant. I cut it when we edited it because my editor told me we were going to hate him.”

Zlotowski explains that the cruel ending is a reflection of life, provoking an emotion that we all experience in our lives that she likens to contempt. “Sometimes you have a history [with someone] that you cannot leave behind, and you live in the same city. It’s not bitterness but contempt for something that should have been, could have been, and has not been.” She adds, “It’s fair the characters aren’t judged, and they don’t judge each other – they just resent each other a little bit. They’re unhappy, and they hurt each other, even if they want to be good to one another. This emotionally moves me; like in life, it’s a realistic sensation I wanted to share. I wanted to create a rhythm with music and form that the audience would receive as something personal.”

Other People’s Children acknowledges the importance of a woman’s desire to be a mother but empowers women who do not share those desires for motherhood. In the closing scenes, Rachel encounters an ex-student in a café who tells her he has never forgotten her. Rachel radiates kindness, discovering she can transmit her values and nurture young people without being a mother. Zlotowski challenges my emphasising kindness and reveals a gritty critique beneath her gentle drama. 

“I’m not sure [Other People’s Children] is about kindness,” she says. “In this film, you have several closures. It’s possible to have the film end when she sees Ali in the park. The film could end when she has a cute meeting in the synagogue. I imagined I did that, but I didn’t. I knew for sure that the film had to end in this cafe, with the ex-student saying, “I never forgot you.”

It’s not about being kind and benevolent to others because she’s sometimes too nice.” Zlotowski continues, “It’s as Ali says at a certain moment: it’s pure narcissism. As you know, altruism is a part of narcissism, but it’s the best part of it. Other People’s Children confirms this, and Ali tells Rachel that if he weren’t in love with her, he’d say that she was a narcissistic person, but because he loves her, he says she’s a very kind person. The truth is somewhere in-between.”

The interaction Rachel and her ex-student share also speaks to a universal desire to leave our mark on the world. On this, Zlotowski and I agree because Other People’s Children is about how children are an answer to the question of legacy, but there are other ways to be remembered. “It’s about what can we give if we don’t have children. What trace are we going to leave behind if we don’t have descendants? I feel it’s not only a woman’s portrait; it’s also a man’s portrait. For men and women, what can we do when we don’t have children? The idea that someone in the city remembers her, this waiter who she might never have seen, moved me to end Other People’s Children in this way.”

Other People’s Children played at the Glasgow Film Festival in March 2023, followed by a theatrical and digital release from Signature Entertainment in the UK on 17 March 2023. It opens in New York at the Lincoln Center and IFC Center on 21 April 2023, courtesy of Music Box Films.