Sunday, May 7, 2023

SIFF 2023 Dispatch #1: Rebecca Zlotowski's Incisive Drama Other People's Children

Welcome to the 49th annual Seattle International Film Festival, the first in-person festival since the pandemic began. 

SIFF 2023 opens with Celine Song's Past Lives on Thursday, May 11, and closes with Chandler Levack's I Like Movies on Sunday, May 21, and continues streaming on the SIFF Channel from Monday, May 22, through Sunday, May 28. In this dispatch, I’ll be looking at Other People's Children.

OTHER PEOPLE'S CHILDREN / Les Enfants des Autres 
(Rebecca Zlotowski, France, 2022, 104 minutes) 

Rebecca Zlotowski's follow-up to The Easy Girl, a fine 2019 film about the romantic misadventures of two single women in Cannes, revolves around Rachel (Belgian-French actress Virginie Efira) a single high school teacher in Paris. Though her ex-husband has moved on to a new relationship, she hasn't been actively searching for a partner until she clicks with her guitar teacher, industrial designer Ali (Roschdy Zem from Louis Garrel's The Innocent). He shares custody of his four-year-old daughter with his ex-wife, Alice (Chiara Mastroianni, making the most of a small, but crucial role).

Rachel has a close relationship with her sister and widowed father, who express curiosity about Ali (their Judaism is a characteristic, not a plot point). She would like to learn more, too, and lets him know that she's ready to meet Leïla (the charming Callie Ferreira-Goncalves). He cautions her that "it's not always easy" dealing with other people's children, and that Leïla is "completely adorable" and "a bit of a pain in the ass," He's not wrong, but their first meeting goes well. 

Their next meeting proves awkward, however, when Leïla insists on sleeping in her father's bed, unaware that Rachel is spending the night. Efira, who had little compunction about the nudity in Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven's elevated take on nunsploitation, slips out to the balcony fully nude in order to spare Leila any discomfort or confusion. The balcony is just wide enough that she can sneak in through another door without being detected. 

Not long afterward, she considers starting a family with Ali, so she makes an appointment with a gynecologist who tells her she doesn't have much time left (Rachel is in her 40s). If Dr. Wiseman looks a lot like legendary American documentarian Frederick Wiseman, a French citizen, it's no coincidence, and he’s quite good in his brief scenes (in 2022, at 92, Wiseman also directed his narrative debut, the French-language docudrama A Couple). 

Once Rachel's novelty factor wears off, Leïla starts to miss her mother whenever she spends time with her father and his girlfriend. It kicks in during a trip out of town when she can't stop talking about how badly she wants to return home to Alice. Later, she asks her father, "Why Is Rachel always here? I want her to go away." Ali had warned her that Leïla could be a handful, though he assures her she talks that way about him and Alice, too. 

Zlotowski contrasts Rachel's friction with Leïla and her inability to get pregnant with her concern for another person's child, Dylan (Victor Lefebvre), a student with unrealized potential. Despite her best efforts, he risks getting kicked out of school. She also contrasts Ali with Vincent (Henri-Noël Tabary), a younger--presumably childless--colleague who adores her. 

Rachel's feelings about motherhood are complicated by events from both past and present, from her mother's death when she was a child--she was in the car during the crash--to an abortion while she was married, to her younger sister's welcome, if unplanned pregnancy. From these elements, Zlotowski could have taken things in a clichéd direction, but Other People’s Children becomes less predictable towards the end, not least because there's never any conflict between Rachel and Leïla's mother and nor does Vincent's undisguised interest in her upset her relationship with Ali.

In its first half, the film bears comparison with Mia Hansen-Love's One Fine Morning, in which a single mother balances a new relationship with her daughter's needs and those of her rapidly-declining father, and Rebecca Miller's Maggie's Plan in which a single woman becomes pregnant shortly after meeting the man who will become her husband, except its the relationship with her daughter that lasts and sustains her. 

In its second half, Zlotowski's fifth film breaks away from those two, and becomes something more bittersweet, if ultimately triumphant--that triumph, though, isn't what Rachel was looking for throughout the film. Not to give too much away, but as a woman without children, I found it quite affecting, even as Efira is a cool, if compelling performer--in Filmmaker, DP George Lechaptois compares her to Romy Schneider, and he's not wrong. 


Other People's Children plays 5/13 at Shoreline Community College and 5/18 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Dates and times are subject to change. Please see the festival site for more info about dates, times, venues, and guests. Images from Wild Bunch/Music Box Films, Unifrance, and Filmelier.

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