French director Rebecca Zlotowski makes her debut in competition at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday with a drama other people’s childrencasting the often neglected, sometimes maligned figure of the stepmother in a new light.
Virginie Efira plays an attractive teacher in her 40s with a full and happy life. Deep down, though, her biological clock is ticking. When she becomes involved with a divorced father, she becomes attached to her young daughter.
Efira joins the cast with Roschdy Zem as the father; Chiara Mastroianni, in a small role as her ex-wife and the girl’s mother, and documentary filmmaker Frederic Wiseman, who makes a guest appearance as a gynecologist.
other people’s children it is Zlotowski’s fifth film after dear prudence, big center, Planetary Y an easy girl. The filmmaker was in Venice for the last time with Planetary who played Out of Competition in 2016.
Deadline spoke with Zlotowski ahead of the Venice premiere.
TERM: The figure of the stepmother has rarely been approached with such sensitivity in the history of cinema. Was it in some way an act of militancy to put the figure of the stepmother in the center of the film?
REBECCA ZLOTOWSKI: When you talk about militantism, I think that all films are militant in some way, even unconsciously, even if they are not political. When I decided to tackle this topic, I was being militant on two levels.
Of course, it’s a female theme that has barely been explored before, maybe because it wasn’t seen as interesting, maybe because it felt like an afterthought in the traditional family setting. It wasn’t seen as the most intense place in terms of emotions, so we looked for couples on the verge of breaking up or a mother dealing with another woman’s involvement in raising her child.
The theme of a woman who is not biologically linked to a family but nevertheless lives with it, at a time when her own fertility is coming to an end, made for me a militant theme both politically, in the sense of saying that today we can raise the budget to finance this type of story and also in the sense of bringing out the emotions of a character, who has traditionally been treated as a secondary character.
It is not about ideology or doctrine. I’m not saying it’s great to be a woman without children, nor that it’s painful: the film shows it as being between the two. There are many stereotypes around the figure of the stepmother and the childless woman. Like I did with my previous movie. easy girl, I wanted to deconstruct a stereotype and propose a different vision of reality.
TERM: It seems to suggest that a film on this subject would have had a hard time finding funding in the past. Do you think the climate has changed to welcome these kinds of stories starring women?
ZLOTOWSKI: This is my fifth film and it is the first film in which I have allowed myself to consider such a feminine subject as a subject that deserves to be addressed. Before this, I always had the idea that a story like this about a woman and her stepchildren would be considered uninteresting, minor. That is why I am eager to see how it is received by the public. Collectively, we’re all caught up in this idea that stories about motherhood and femininity are small, while a story about a man facing a challenge within his company is somehow more worth telling.
But the story of my film is not only lived by women, it is also lived by men: the desire to be a father or not to be. I am sorry for what is happening in the United States right now with the reversal of Wade vs. Roe and I don’t understand why men don’t protest in the streets as well; they also have the right not to have a child.
I feel like we’re at the beginning of being able to tell different kinds of stories, as female directors like me allow ourselves to tackle these issues. I felt this resonated with my producers, financiers and actors. Everyone has had a connection, a moment of transmission, with a child that was not their own, or a desire or lack of desire to have children, but it has not been addressed before. The film is inspired by my own personal experiences and in part by the fact that when I searched the theater for films to help me through the situation, there weren’t any.
TERM: Why did you choose Virginie Efira for the role?
ZLOTOWSKI: We are lucky in France to have such a rich talent base of actresses, but there are not many in her age group who give off this air of seduction and desire, but at the same time are so cerebral.
There is something very special about Virginie. People see her as a blonde bombshell, which both men and women find attractive, but she is also very cerebral. She is always asking questions. If you ever interview her, you’ll understand what I mean. I think that’s why female directors like Justine Trier, Anne Fontaine, Alice Winocour, Valerie Donzelli and I like working with her. She gets along with the directors and is open to her ideas.
TERM: You also have Chiara Mastroianni in the supporting role of the biological mother. Was it difficult to get her for a secondary role?
ZLOTOWSKI: No problem. He is always unpredictable in terms of the roles he assumes. He has been offered amazing big roles in the past, but he has turned them down. There is an air of mystery around how he chooses his roles. When she agreed to take the role in the movie, I made it clear to her that there were very few scenes, but she said, “I don’t care. The story you tell is interesting. The character you want me to play, I’m interested. Let’s go.”
I think we’ve broken an unspoken role in the movies, that there’s only room for one major actress in a movie. It is the first time that two great actresses do two small scenes together, simply because they want to. From the point of view of the character, the figure of the ex-wife is strong in the background. It was important to me to have an easily identifiable and familiar actress in that role so that the memory of her would linger in the film. She needed a star.
TERM: There is a fair amount of nudity in the film. Do you think you handled this differently than a male director? Did you bring in an intimacy coordinator?
ZLOTOWSKI: The scene where Virginie’s character is naked on the balcony is a clown. It’s a joke. But it’s an interesting question. Maybe. I have seen films by female directors in the past where the position of the camera has made me uncomfortable. It is not linked to the director’s sex but to his style. When I filmed Virginie nude, it was a pleasure to film her because she is beautiful and I think she enjoyed it too. If she had felt that she was uncomfortable with the scene, she would not have continued.
For Roschdy’s scene where he’s naked in the shower. There is no full frontal nudity, but I had to negotiate. It was the first time he had been filmed naked in his career, but he was happy to do it because he made sense of the character. I didn’t use intimacy coordinators, but if I had been working with an inexperienced young cast, or shooting a very sexual scene, I would have. It’s like I’m doing a stunt scene, I bring in a stunt artist to help me.
TERM: She participated in the early days of the Le Collectif 50:50 group in France, whose goal was to increase female representation in the world of French cinema. The group appears to have imploded following allegations of sexual harassment against a board member. Where does this leave the fight for gender equality in the film industry in France?
ZLOTOWSKI: I was one of the co-founders but left after two years due to work commitments. I was also involved in [French directors guild] The Société des Réalisateurs Francais (The SRF) at the time. It was a collective period for me. It was a bit like my military service, but at a certain point, I had to focus on my job.
I haven’t been involved in 50:50 for three years, so I can’t really comment on the crisis it’s going through. Of course, I have followed this implosion with sadness. All I can say is that at the time of its creation, it was a really useful tool that helped progress.
He was also behind his position, which was to redistribute power and resources, rather than focus on sexual harassment. It is possible to think coldly on the subject of salaries, positions and resources, while once you enter the domain of sexual harassment, it is difficult to be sensible; radical emotions and positions flood me and I found it difficult to master those conversations.
The implosion of the collective is a small event in the grand scheme of things for feminists at a time when we are seeing the withdrawal of abortion rights and women’s rights are under attack in places like Afghanistan and even in Europe, in places like Hungary and Poland. It is vital that progressive groups regroup and unite because we are up against opponents who are highly organized and united in their campaign against progress.
Looking at the industry, have things changed? The main thing is that there is a political awareness around the issue of inequality, which did not exist before. Even if inequalities still exist, at least there is an awareness of inequalities, which was not the case before. We were not suggesting that those in power were deliberately blocking the way for women or minority groups, but rather that they were looking at everything from their point of view. Today, everyone understands that selection committees must be diverse and transparent in their selection processes. Everyone understands the urgency of opening the cinema because there is a whole sector of the population that does not recognize itself in the cinema and has gone to the platforms. In terms of representation behind the camera and at festivals, we are far from seeing equality, but at least there is awareness of the situation.
TERM: What are you working on next?
ZLOTOWSKI: I’m co-writing the script for the new version of Emmanuelle with Audrey Dian. That’s a lot of fun, but I can’t really say anything about it, since it’s an Audrey project. As a director, I am working on another movie and drama. I don’t want to say much about the movie yet, as it’s too early, other than the fact that it’s an erotic thriller.
The trailer for the film can be viewed here.