“Other People’s Children escapes the banality of melodrama through Zlotowski’s strong direction and yet another powerful central performance by Belgian actress Virginie Efira.”
The strength of French director Rebecca Zlotowski’s fifth feature Other People’s Children lies not so much in its ambitions, but in its subject matter and the impeccable simplicity with which it renders relationships between women and children, motherhood, and the feeling of being the fifth wheel. On the surface a somewhat manipulative tearjerker, Other People’s Children escapes the banality of melodrama through Zlotowski’s strong direction and yet another powerful central performance by Belgian actress Virginie Efira. Here she’s amusingly back on the Mostra with another character that bonds with someone else’s daughter (last year she did the same in Venice Days title Madeleine Collins). Add a plethora of strong supporting performances, including a droll one by septuagenarian director Frederick Wiseman as Efira’s gynaecologist, and Other People’s Children turns out to be a film that will certainly affect the tearducts, but has something deeper to say as well.
One night at guitar practice, high school teacher Rachel (Efira) meets Ali (Roschdy Zem, who has his own film Les miens premiering in competition later this week). The two fall head-over-heels in love, which means Rachel will eventually have to meet with Ali’s four-year-old Leila (a disarming Callie Ferreira-Goncalves), the daughter from his previous relationship with Alice (Chiara Mastroianni). Apprehension on the part of the child soon makes place for a strong bond as Rachel becomes infatuated with Leila. When her sister becomes pregnant Rachel’s longing for a child of her own intensifies, but her clock is ticking, her gynaecologist warns her.
Remaining childless has been a conscious choice for Rachel up until the moment she meets Ali. Being suddenly thrust into caring for another woman’s daughter is not an easy thing, but surprisingly this is a topic rarely talked about in cinema, especially so earnestly as in Other People’s Children. Strange, as it seems like a theme that can be milked for plenty of emotion. Zlotowski’s film does play the heartstrings, to be sure, but never makes it too obvious and is willing to delve into the difficult situation for its central character of always being ‘the other woman’ or ‘the surrogate mother’. The screenplay, written by Zlotowski herself, is honest and believable with well-drawn characters and an organically flowing plot which rarely feels convoluted for the sake of evoking drama. Zlotowski’s strong sense for composition and the warmth in George Lechaptois’ cinematography make Other People’s Children an attractive film to look at, but also are deftly used to steer emotions.
As Rachel, Efira delivers yet another seemingly effortless performance. The naturalism in Efira’s acting, perfectly calibrating emotional moments to keep the melodrama at acceptable levels, allows her to embody Rachel with ease and create a character that never rings false. In a Venice competition that saw female performances ranging from extreme yet powerful restraint (Trace Lysette in Monica) to powerhouse tour-de-force (Cate Blanchett in Tár), Efira’s lies somewhere in the middle, but it is hard to imagine either of those other actresses turning in a performance like hers.
With Other People’s Children Zlotowski creates perhaps her strongest film to date, a heartfelt drama about motherhood and how it affects women’s position relative to men within relationships. Perhaps too understated to rise above the field, the film still has the potential to be a moderate arthouse hit if it can attract an audience looking for the type of serious drama that sadly these days has a mountain to climb.