In what has to be a film festival first, two of the actors in Rebecca Zlotowski’s new drama Other People’s Children, Roschdy Zem and Frederick Wiseman, have their own movies — Zem-directed Our Time and Wiseman’s Un couple — in competition at the Venice Film Festival this year.

It’s Zlotowski’s second trip to the Lido after Planetarium starring Natalie Portman, Emmanuel Salinger and Lily-Rose Depp premiered in Venice in 2016. That opulent period drama, featuring Portman and Depp as a pair of sisters and spiritual mediums touring 1930s France, was a departure for Zlotowski, who won critical praise in France and on the international circuit with her first two features: Belle Epine (2010) and Grand Central (2013), both starring Lea Seydoux.

Other People’s Children features Benedetta star Virginie Efira as Rachel, a 40-something childless school teacher (her gynecologist, played by Wiseman, keeps reminding her that her biological clock is ticking). Rachel falls for Ali (Zem) and begins to develop an attachment to Leila, his 4-year-old daughter. But she soon finds that loving other people’s children can be risky. Wild Bunch is handling international sales for the film, with CAA Media Finance handling domestic.

Zlotowski spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film’s Venice premiere.

I understand this project started off 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 I started adapting Romain Gary’s novel Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid, which is about a man’s impotence, and Roschdy Zem was attached from day one to play the lead. Which is weird because this film is absolutely built now around Virginie Efira. It’s very much a portrait of a woman. It’s interesting in the process that the man came first. I think maybe I was too shy, maybe too full of shame initially to approach what is a very personal subject for me, as a woman turning 40, having no kids, and being very surrounded by the maternity issue. I think I initially could not allow myself to embrace the subject so frontally as I have done with the film. In the beginning, I needed a masculine subject, to approach it. The process of developing the film was a political liberation for me. It’s my fifth feature, but it’s the first time I’ve allowed myself to embrace a very feminine topic.

How did the film change as you started to develop it?

I wrote the script myself, during COVID lockdown. Usually, I work with other people, so I can hide myself a bit in the writing. But here there was something in the book that just related to me personally. I kept thinking about what the end of fertility means. Whether it’s a man experiencing impotency or a woman turning 40 and experiencing the end of fertility. 

Then, and this is the mysterious process of writing, you go back and forth between the personal subject, the social topic and the cinematic aspects of the story. When you have something that brings all three aspects of the writing together: the personal, the social and the cinematic, it’s a bingo. I thought: maybe there’s a film here.

When I first told Roschdy I wanted to adapt the Gary novel, he was thrilled. He really wanted to play this part. When I finally sent him the script, I told him: “There’s a slight change now.” But after reading it, he was happy to do it. He said it was as if we had been expecting a child together, and it turned out to be a girl instead of a boy. But it’s our child, and we love her.

How difficult was it to address such a personal subject in a film which is very direct and doesn’t have a lot of artificial elements to hide behind?

As soon as I accepted that the character that interested me was the other woman, who is not the mother but the step-mother, the girlfriend of the father, a character that usually is a side character, a supporting character in films 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 feel the current political moment played a role. I felt the industry in France was open to this. When I told my producer my idea, I could see he was interested, and maybe 10 years ago that wouldn’t have been so.

Or maybe I just needed 10 years in this industry to feel confident enough to try to make such a personal subject into a cinema subject.

I’m very much like Rachel. I’m a Parisian woman in my early 40s. The character is a teacher, and I studied to be a teacher at university. I felt this film could be the dream life, maybe the alternative life, of what could have been for me. And, feeling that I could not have a child, I saw the film as a letter to myself, something I needed, both as a director and as a spectator, to help me with my situation. Because I couldn’t find this story anywhere, not in the way I wanted to show it, with tenderness. Showing how you become super attached to a kid that you raise but isn’t yours. To have strong feminist feelings that you can be complete without children, but still feeling the pain. This kind of complexity I couldn’t find anywhere. So I made the film.

How did you come to cast Virginie Efira in the main role as Rachel and how did you two shape the character?

Well, she’s one of the best actresses in France. And I love her contradictions. Even her name: Virginie, virgin. Because she’s not a virgin and there’s something about not being a virgin that I loved in her. And I needed a character that was not a virgin, a woman that had had another life. When I offered her the script, she said: “I feel you wrote this for me because I’ve been this woman, the lover, the stepmother. I’ve been in these situations.”

What I find fascinating about your depiction of Rachel is that, despite nothing obviously dramatic happening, the film is incredibly emotional. 

Thank you, and thank you for noticing that. I take it as a compliment. I think it is a struggle for me to fight for the possibility of having another scheme of emotions triumph in my films. I feel my films are closer to a kind of Asian cinema. When I go to Asia, I think audiences have a better understanding of my films and certain understatement of the emotions in them.

Sometimes I feel lonely in mainstream cinema because even when I like it, I can be super thrilled by an action movie blockbuster or by an exciting Netflix show, but it doesn’t have much to do with the emotions that surround me personally in my life. The cinema I’m touched by has another set of emotions, and I feel we need these emotions to triumph a bit. Like in the Claude Sautet 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 offer us a very plain form of empathy, where the intensity of the character is supposed to be the intensity of our reception of them. I think this is a mistake. I think the challenge of our job, as storytellers and filmmakers, is to do the opposite. To create empathy for someone who wants to be a good person but still hurts someone else.

The film is very dramaturgically structured and very tightly written, but I tried to make everything feel inspired by real life and ring true. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story also manages this effect. I have the feeling these days that any teenager who subscribes to Netflix knows all the screenwriters’ tricks. I wanted to make a film that held the audience by the edge of their seats until the very end, without going through the motions of conventional writing. To subvert the expectations of the audience.

You also subvert conventions in your depiction of the “other woman”...

Usually, the depiction of this character in a film would be a caricature, archetypal. She would be the mean one, the rival. She would be jealous unhappy, and frustrated. But I just cannot relate to that. I’ve been that woman, I’ve experienced it when you fall in love with someone, and you fall in love with their family. And then, at a certain moment, you realize you’re an extra in the story. You know that if you love the children, you need to be erased easily because they have already gone through something very difficult, which is the divorce of their parents. So you just leave. But you still feel something very strong for the children.

Oddly, it feels like a taboo-breaking film, although it seems shocking to think it is still taboo to talk about women who want to have children but can’t.

I think there is just so much pain in both aspects. There’s the pain of women who want children and can’t have them. Then there’s the pain of women who want to abort, and now, in the U.S. after the end of Roe v. Wade, find it much harder to do so. I’m a French woman, and those struggles [over reproductive rights] have been won. Touch wood. But we have to address 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 when she was 25 and that today, she would have done things differently. But I think this complexity is something we have to deal with honestly. If these subjects are still taboo, it’s because they need to be taken on by people who really know what they are talking about, which when it comes to maternity, maybe means women and there are still not that many of us making movies.

You were inspired by your own experience in writing Other People’s Children. But then your own life took a twist in the third act.

Yes, after I finished writing the script, when I went into prep for the film, I discovered I was pregnant! The Hollywood ending. I was not expecting it anymore. I was pregnant shooting the film. It took nine months to make this film, and nine months to make my baby. I wrote the movie with frustration and pain and then shot it with a real sense of generosity, and plenty, which I think really helped. But you know, I used to hate it when I would tell people I didn’t have children, and they’d say “your films are your children.” Now that I have a child, I can say making a film is the exact opposite in the spectrum of creation. When you make a film, you are in control of everything. Making a child means being overwhelmed by something that you cannot control.

This interview was edited for space and clarity.

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