‘Other People’s Children’ Review: Virginie Efira Gives a Career-Best Turn in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Deft, Delicate Dramedy

‘Other People’s Children’ Review: Virginie Efira Gives a Career-Best Turn in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Deft, Delicate Dramedy

Released on Netflix in 2020 after premiering at Cannes the year before, An Easy Girl was an under-the-radar treat — a South-of-France-set coming-of-age film so lusciously tactile and perceptive it felt like a classic as soon as the closing credits began to roll. The writer-director, Rebecca Zlotowski, is back with a more conventional but equally winning work in Venice competition entry Other People’s Children (Les enfants des autres), confirming her gift for investing familiar formulas with freshness and charm, smarts and sexiness.

Anchored by a superb Virginie Efira (Benedetta) as a 40ish high-school teacher whose bond with her boyfriend’s daughter awakens a complicated mix of maternal yearning and midlife frustration, the movie has the typical contours of contemporary Parisian romantic dramedy: Good-looking people embrace, talk, smoke, sip wine, attend casually chic soirees, and embrace some more against the backdrop of a glittering Eiffel Tower and other lovely City of Lights locales.

Other People’s Children

The Bottom Line

Wise and winning.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Virginie Efira, Roschy Zem, Chiara Mastroianni, Callie Ferreira Goncalves, Yamée Couture, Henri-Noël Tabary, Victor Lefebvre, Michel Zlotowski
Director/screenwriter: Rebecca Zlotowski

1 hour 43 minutes

Despite its sheen of quintessential Frenchness, Zlotowski’s touchstones here are American: Kramer vs. Kramer and An Unmarried Woman are the clearest influences — films with which Other People’s Children shares its appealing blend of accessibility and sophistication, as well as its sense of confident craftsmanship. While undoubtedly her most mainstream effort yet — the movie doesn’t aspire to the moody atmospherics of Dear Prudence and Grand Central and lacks An Easy Girl’s undercurrent of subversiveness (as for Planetarium, the less said the better) — it’s never assembly-line generic: Zlotowski is coloring within the lines here, but with generous strokes of nuance and feeling.

Like An Easy Girl, Other People’s Children considers, and challenges, the categories women often find themselves shoved into, the pressures they face to make certain choices or accommodate certain expectations. Such thematic interests are something Zlotowski has in common with several other French female filmmakers — Mia Hansen-Løve, Audrey Diwan and Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet among them — currently dusting off their national cinema, tackling well-worn genres with new vitality and tweaking tropes and traditions.

Sparing us the meet-cute, Other People’s Children kicks off with Rachel (Efira) already texting with Ali (Roschdy Zem), a car designer she knows from a guitar class they’re both taking. With the heroine dashing around the city (the use of Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerto in C Major is a direct Kramer vs. Kramer citation), going on an impromptu date with Ali, and bantering breezily with her sister (Yamée Couture) and father (Michel Zlotowski) over post-Rosh Hashanah Chinese food, the opening scenes place the viewer in the comforting visual and narrative context of the modern urban rom-com. Over the next 90 minutes, the movie will prove tougher and wiser than those cues, and that classification, would suggest.

Rachel and Ali fall for each other hard and fast. Zlotowski doesn’t stint on shots of Efira’s nude body — did I mention this is a French film? — but reserves her cheekiest (no pun intended), most intentional gaze for Zem: After spending her first night at Ali’s apartment, Rachel sits in the bathroom watching her new beau take a shower, the camera lingering on his body as he lathers up. “Just admiring you,” Rachel remarks, unembarrassed. Get it, girl.

The only impediment to the couple’s bliss comes in the adorable form of Leila (the delightfully natural Callie Ferreira Goncalves), the 4-year-old daughter Ali has with his ex, Alice (Chiara Mastroianni, excellent). Ali prefers to keep things simple and compartmentalized, but when Rachel insists on meeting Leila — she loves Ali and wants to share his life fully — he agrees. A new family configuration emerges, its participants settling into revised roles and routines. Rachel grows close to Leila, wooing her with candy, picking her up from judo and gamely embracing the “stepmother” designation. She cultivates a cordial relationship with Alice, and sensitively navigates the standard push/pull of affection and rejection with Leila. So far, so good.

Zlotowski expands her story, gently darkening the sitcom-sunny mood with subplots and secondary figures: a friend of Alice’s who has cancer (Anne Berest); the younger colleague who pines for Rachel (Henri-Noël Tabary); a troubled student (Victor Lefebvre); a surprise pregnancy for Rachel’s sister. (That Rachel is Jewish and Ali is Arab is a total non-issue, which is both refreshing and, given tensions in French society, vaguely utopian.)

Then there are Rachel’s feelings about having her own child, which Zlotowski portrays not as desperate, but as fluid — vacillating between acute longing, ambivalence and a fear of missing out on what Rachel refers to as “the collective experience” of motherhood. Adding a degree of urgency is Rachel’s gynecologist, played by peerless documentarian Frederick Wiseman (!), who reminds her that “the clock’s ticking.”

The pacing of Other People’s Children is bouncy and the screenplay tightly constructed, with shrewd use of ellipses and scenes so nicely observed that you forgive the occasional lapse into cliché (how about a moratorium on out-of-nowhere car crashes and characters panicking over ostensibly lost children?). Turns in plot and shifts in character feel more organic than programmatic; Zlotowski has thought through who these people are and how their histories inform the ways they behave and react.

The filmmaker’s mastery of tone is most evident in the second half of the movie, when she pierces the cheerful ambiance with notes of wincing pain. Fleeting moments that would play as filler in a lesser film seem to contain entire lifetimes of complex, conflicting emotion: The tears Rachel and her sister share at the birth of the latter’s baby, for example, feel joyous, but also freighted with past sorrow and a twinge of guilt.

A blonde beauty with a warm, velvety laugh, Efira does her best work yet as a woman who, compared to the usual Parisian narcissists and neurotics, is a model of selflessness. (“Now I’m ashamed,” she says when she catches herself venting her own frustrations to Ali at one point.) Indeed, Rachel puts other people first — above all, Ali and Leila. But she’s no pushover and, proving that decency can be just as interesting onscreen as dysfunction, Efira locates strength and passion in Rachel’s kindness: She gives a low-key barnburner of a speech at a faculty meeting in defense of a struggling student, and when she feels like a perennial “extra” in Ali and Leila’s life, she confronts him.

Efira gradually peels back Rachel’s layers, revealing an aching wistfulness beneath her radiance. (The way she turns down a kiss from an earnest would-be suitor — the most tender rejection imaginable — is something to behold.) She and the terrific Zem, as a good man with his own wounds and blind spots, have vivid, wholly believable chemistry.

As in An Easy Girl, the briskness of Other People’s Children may seem, deceptively, like it’s coming at the expense of depth. Zlotowski doesn’t pull you into the trenches with Rachel so much as she observes her with clear-eyed, cool-headed compassion and a sort of artful detachment. Key developments — a first kiss, a painful breakup — are filmed at a discreet remove. Swells of dramatic classical music and gestures carried out with choreographed delicacy — Rachel and Ali’s intertwined hands rising slowly together to Ali’s lips — transform moments that could have been cloying or banal into flashes of grace. Those flourishes, like the iris shots that open and close certain scenes, frame Other People’s Children as very much a story being told, a kind of fairy tale or parable, rather than any attempt at immersive realism or visceral intimacy.

Despite the film’s recognizable beats, Rachel doesn’t end up exactly where you think she will, or where you might want her to. A moving epilogue casts the protagonist’s journey in a slightly different light, as if urging viewers to question their ideas of what constitutes a happy ending. Other People’s Children is finally about the various things that can give life meaning — or, perhaps more accurately, about the very notion that various things can give life meaning — rather than any single thing. Rachel is open to the world and its possibilities, but she won’t chase them down or cling to them without condition. Just like the movie she’s in, she’s comfortable with herself, and all the better for it.