I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Złotowski about her film, “Other People’s Children,“ during Sundance this year. The French film was part of the spotlight program and centers on a woman named Rachel who struggles to have her own children while developing a strong bond with her boyfriend Ali’s daughter, Leila. Virginie Efira plays Rachel in a moving performance. The end of the film, which I will not give away, has stayed with me over the past couple months. Złotowski has a gift for empathizing with her characters in a cinematic way. We talked about the camera techniques she used to elevate Rachel’s story, such as using her hands to have an iris effect, and superimposing scenes to show the emotions she is having while reading a text message from Ali. The inspiration of the film was personal for Złotowski as a woman herself approaching 40 who was unable to have her own children at the time. Also, she has been a stepmother to her boyfriend’s children, like Rachel was to Leila. It is rare that we see such a vulnerable look at a character who is a “stepmother” because of the negative connotations we’ve seen on the screen over the years. It can go all the way back to the many adaptations of Cinderella with the “evil stepmother.” But Złotowski comes from an authentic place and wants you to look at Rachel as a character you can feel for and root for.
“Other People’s Children” is now in theaters.
What inspired the story of this film?
I wanted to cover a topic that was interesting to me. I was adapting a novel about male impotency. This was pre-pandemic, and when the pandemic arrived, I felt the need to examine my own impotence. The premise of this film is about a 40-year-old woman. I was almost 40 at that time, and with not being able to have a baby, it was a vulnerable situation. I was at a crossroads about figuring out if it was even possible for me to have children and having to face the fact that this could be the end of this chapter in my life. At the time, I was raising my boyfriend’s children, and that inspired the direction of the narrative of “Other People’s Children”
I love what’s going on with Virginie Efira’s career, being an early 40-something and being in films like “Sybil” and “Benedetta”. How did you get her on board for this project?
It’s my first feature, and I’ve always been interested in Virginie’s work. France is a small country, and you don’t have many actresses that are charismatic like her. We’ve known each other for ten years, and have a respect for each other’s work. I knew that one day we would work together, and I’m so happy it was for this film. Virginie embraced the character and put a lot of herself into it. She understood the character as this is an experience she can also relate to, and understood that this was a situation that a lot of people shared, both men and women.
I’d love to talk about some of the technical aspects of your cinematography, like the iris-like shots, can you talk about that?
It’s a tool that I like to use. It is like an iris shot, but you just close and open the lens with your hand. I do that technique often because it creates a certain feeling. I feel it signifies for the character a certain moment of epiphany. It shows that something important is happening to the character.
Can you talk about that scene where the birthday party is superimposed with Virginie’s character texting?
First of all, I feel we need to reinvent how we do texting on screen. It is now something that is a part of our everyday lives. Everyone now communicates through text messages. It’s a beautiful thing. When I superimposed that scene, I wanted it to be like he was consuming her thoughts and showing how the texts were affecting her emotionally. So this technique is used to give the audience the impression of the harshness of the situation, and her imagining of what is happening that she is being excluded from. This superimposition was used to enhance that feeling of exclusion.
Can you talk about breaking the onscreen stereotypes of the stepmother?
It was easy to break the stereotype because it’s such a common one. Even the word “stepmom” has a negative connotation to it. As a stepmother and a filmmaker, I wanted to bring something real to the screen with this character and break the stereotype. I wanted to try to do something personal, and do something different that speaks more truth to the reality of being a stepmother. A film that I feel breaks the stereotype is Ann Reinking’s character in “All That Jazz.” There is a scene that I love where she does this beautiful dance with the daughter of Roy Scheider’s character, Joe Gideon. Their relationship is beautiful and honest.
I love that scene, I watch it all the time.
I do too. It’s an amazing film! This was probably the first film that put a stepmom in the center of the narrative. Also, it’s the same with the ex-wife. I wanted to make a statement to have a scene where they would talk to each other in a kind way. I wanted to lean into that, and not just have the stereotypical bitterness and resentment between the “ex-wife” and “step-mom”.
What do you hope people see in your film?
Making a film is like writing a letter, a well-written letter that is written to you, the audience. When the letter is sent, it’s up to you to get out of it what you get. But my hope is that people would be kind to the characters and be moved.