In fiction as in the collective imagination, the mother-in-law does not often have the beautiful role. She is Cinderella’s stepmother, the strident step-doche who disrupts the family cocoon and has the nerve to give lessons to parents on how they should educate their children.
However, we all know a mother-in-law – apparently, there are even some who are nice. And in real life, she’s (rarely) a nasty caricature with crooked nails: just a woman who, falling in love, has had to make room in her daily life for children which were not his. With Other people’s childrenpresented in competition at the Venice Film Festival and which will be released in theaters on September 21, Rebecca Zlotowski finally gives a little nuance to this delicate role taken on by so many women.
A stunning delicacy
Virginie Efira, whose list of cesarean roles continues to grow over the years, plays Rachel, 40 years old and childless. As the heroine falls in love with Ali (Roschdy Zem), she also meets her adorable 4-year-old daughter, Leila.
One would expect a slew of classic clashes stemming from this storyline: a rivalry between Rachel and Ali’s ex-wife, Alice (Chiara Mastroianni); annoyance in the face of this child who is not his; or a multitude of arguments with Ali, who would be divided between his responsibilities of dad and lover.
But Rebecca Zlotowski’s film circumvents these pitfalls and, with overwhelming delicacy, avoids conflict at every opportunity. Because the emotional impact of this new daily life, for all the characters, is already rich and complex enough.
In the film, Rachel is enthusiastic about meeting Leila, and immediately won over by the little girl. She also gets along well with Alice, the child’s mother. Which isn’t to say his new role isn’t a minefield. Rachel must constantly adapt, and learn to take on new responsibilities (such as the simple act of plan a snack when she picks up Leila at judo).
The pressure she feels is twofold: at the slightest mistake with Leila, Rachel could lose Ali, and in the event of rupture with Ali, she would also lose her bond with Leila. Virginie Efira delivers, as usual, an overwhelming performance, capable of overwhelming us with a simple look. All the issues of the film are contained in the dialogues, subtle and organic, where a simple sentence from Leila (“Why is Rachel there all the time?”) acts like a deflagration.
Rebecca Zlotowski, whose pen and gaze continue to refine with each new film, offers the subject such a rare nuance and interest that, facing the screen, one has the impression of discovering this yet universal theme for the first time. It is moreover to correct a void in the fictional representations that the filmmaker wanted to make her film.
As she explains in her note of intent, the character of the mother-in-law is “Traditionally a supporting character, sometimes just an extra, who has to step aside when the love story ends. Why is this woman, who is going through a common experience – one that I myself had – never been a heroin movies? With Other people’s childrenI just wanted to make the movie that I needed to see, thinking that maybe others would need to see it too.”
mothering without having children
She does not think so well, and her representation of step-parenthood (or gynecologist ideal, embodied by Frederick Wiseman) is not the only gift it gives us. Rebecca Zlotowski treats nulliparity with the same finesse, this state that we are sometimes sold, in fiction, as a monstrous defect.
Although the relationship between Rachel and Leila is at the heart of the film, Other people’s children is also a film about the ambiguity of desire for motherhood, and the mourning that it is sometimes necessary to make of the children that one will never have. Rachel is fulfilled by the life she leads, she is passionate, surrounded, loved. This does not prevent her from questioning herself, when she is over 40 years old, about the possibility increasingly weak to have a child.
When a colleague asks her if it would be the end of the world not to have one, she replies thoughtfully: “No, it’s not the end of the world. I’m even a little proud to belong to the group of those who don’t have one. And it’s not like I thought you had to have it to be complete. But it is still this immense collective experience, which everyone goes through, and to which I do not have access.
Whether we have a child or not, Other people’s children manages to awaken intimate questions about our relationship to parenthood. Its title alludes to Leila, but also to all the other children of others whom Rachel loves and helps to grow: her students, his friends, his sister, his nephew. Faced with the film, we thus find ourselves thinking of our own mother and to all the people who, without having given birth to us, have one day mothered us.
Other people’s children
by Rebecca Zlotowski
with Virginie Efira, Roschdy Zem, Anne Berest
Released September 21, 2022