Rebecca Zlotowski talks stepmother drama ‘Other People’s Children’– – Deadline

French director Rebecca Zlotowski makes her Venice Film Festival competition debut on Sunday with drama Other People’s Children, casting the often neglected, sometimes maligned figure of the stepmother in a fresh light.

Virginie Efira stars as an attractive teacher in her 40s with a full and happy life. In the backdrop, however, her biological clock is ticking. When she gets involved with a divorced father, she becomes attached to his young daughter.

Efira is joined in the cast by Roschdy Zem as the father; Chiara Mastroianni, in a small role as his ex-wife and the girl’s mother, and documentarian Frederic Wiseman, who makes a guest appearance as a gynaecologist.

Other People’s Children is Zlotowski’s fifth film after Dear Prudence, Grand Central, Planetarium and An Easy Girl. The filmmaker was last in Venice with Planetarium which played Out of Competition in 2016.

Deadline talked to Zlotowski ahead of the premiere in Venice.

DEADLINE: The figure of the stepmother has rarely been tackled with such sensitivity in the history of cinema. Was putting the figure of the stepmother at the heart of the film an act of militantism in a way?

REBECCA ZLOTOWSKI: When you talk about militantism, I think all films are militant in some way, even unconsciously, even if they’re not political. When I decided to take on this subject, I was being militant on two levels.

Of course, it’s a feminine subject that has hardly been explored before, perhaps because it wasn’t seen as interesting, perhaps because it felt like something secondary in the traditional family set-up. It wasn’t seen as the place with the most intensity in terms of emotions, so we looked to couples on the verge of breakup, or a mother dealing with the involvement of another woman in the upbringing of her child.

The subject of a woman who is not biologically tied to a family but nevertheless lives with it, at a time when her own fertility is approaching its end, made a subject for me which was militant both politically, in the sense of saying today we can pull together the budget to finance this sort of story and also in the sense of bringing to the fore the emotions of a figure, that has traditionally been treated as a secondary character.

It’s not about ideology or doctrine. I’m neither saying that it’s great to be a woman without children, nor that it’s painful – the film shows it as being between the two. There are lots of stereotypes around the figure of the stepmother, and women without children. Like I did with my previous film An Easy Girl, I wanted to deconstruct a stereotype, and propose a different take on reality.

DEADLINE: You seem to suggest that a film about this subject would have had a hard time finding finance in the past. Do you think the climate has changed for getting these sorts of female-led stories?

ZLOTOWSKI: This is my fifth film and it’s the first film where I have allowed myself to consider a subject that is this feminine as a subject that deserves to be tackled. Before this, I always had this idea that a story like this about a woman and her stepchildren would be considered uninteresting, something minor. It’s why I’m keen to see how it is received by audiences. Collectively, we’re all of us are caught up in this idea that stories related to maternity and the feminine are small, while a story about a man who faces a challenge within his company is somehow more worthy of being told.

But the story in my film isn’t just lived by women, it’s also lived by men – the desire to be a father, or not be a father. I deplore what is happening in the United States right now with the reversal of Wade Vs. Roe and I don’t understand why men aren’t in the streets protesting as well  – it’s also their right not to have a child too.

I feel we’re at the beginning of being able to tell different sorts of stories, as female directors like me allow ourselves to tackle these subjects. I felt this echoed in my producers, financiers and actors. Everyone has had a connection, a moment of transmission, with a child that was not their own, or a desire or none desire to have children, but it hasn’t been tackled before. The film is inspired by my own personal experiences and partly out of the fact that when I looked to cinema to find films that would help me live the situation, there were none.

DEADLINE: Why did you choose Virginie Efira for the role?

ZLOTOWSKI: We’re lucky in France to have such a rich talent base of actresses but there are not many in her age group who give off this air of seduction and desire but are so cerebral at the same time

There is something very special about Virginie. People see her as this blonde bombshell, who both men and women find attractive, but she is also very cerebral. She’s always asking questions. If you ever interview her, you’ll understand what I mean. I think that is why female directors – like Justine Trier, Anne Fontaine, AIice Winocour, Valerie Donzelli and myself – like to work with her. She gets on well with female directors and is open to their ideas.

DEADLINE: You also have Chiara Mastroianni in the supporting role of the biological mother Was it hard to get her for a secondary role?

ZLOTOWSKI: Not at all. She is always unpredictable in terms of the roles she takes. She has been offered amazing big roles in the past, that she’s turned down. There’s an air of mystery around how she chooses her roles. When she accepted to take on the part in the film, I made it clear there were very few scenes, but she said, “I don’t care. The story you’re telling is interesting. The character you want me to play, interests me. Let’s go.”

I think we’ve broken an unsaid role in cinema, that there is only space for one important actress in a film. It’s the first time, we have two great actresses do two small scenes together, simply because they want to do it. From the point of view of the character, the figure of the ex-wife is a strong one in the backdrop.  It was important for me to have an actress who is readily identifiable, and familiar in that role, so her memory persists in the film. I needed a star.

DEADLINE: There’s a fair amount of nudity in the film. Do you think you handled this differently from a male director. Did you bring in an intimacy coordinator?

ZLOTOWSKI: The scene where Virginie’s character is nude on the balcony, it’s slapstick. It’s a gag. But it’s an interesting question. Maybe. I’ve watched films by female directors in the past where the position of the camera has made me feel uneasy. It’s not linked to the sex of the director but rather their style. When I filmed Virginie nude, it was a pleasure to film her because she is beautiful, and I think she enjoyed it too. If I had felt she was uneasy with the scene, I wouldn’t have continued.

For the scene of Roschdy where he is nude in the shower. There is no full-frontal nudity but I had to negotiate. It was the first time he had been filmed nude in his career, but he was happy to do it because it made sense with the character. I didn’t use intimacy coordinators but if I had been working with a young inexperienced cast, or shooting a very sexual scene, I would have. It’s like if I’m doing a stunt scene, I bring in a stunt artist to help.

DEADLINE: You were involved in the early days of France’s Le Collectif 50:50 group aimed at raising female representation within the French cinema world. The group appears to have imploded following accusations of sexual harassment against a board member. Where does this leave the fight for gender equality in the film industry in France?

ZLOTOWSKI: I was one of the co-founders but I stepped back after two years due to work commitments. I was also involved in the [French directors guild] La Société des Réalisateurs Francais (La SRF) at the time. It was a collective period for me. It was a bit like my military service but at a certain point, I had to focus on my work.

I haven’t been involved in 50:50 for three years now, so I can’t really comment on the crisis it’s going through. Of course, I’ve followed this implosion with sadness. All I can say is that at the time of its creation, it was a really useful tool that helped make progress.

I was also behind its position which was one of redistributing power and resources, rather than focusing on sexual harassment. It’s possible to think coolly about the issue of salaries, positions and resources whereas as soon as you enter the domain of sexual harassment, it’s difficult to be level-headed; emotions and radical positions flood in and I found it difficult to get master those conversations.

The implosion of the collective is a small event in the big scheme of things for feminists at a time when we’re seeing the withdrawal of the right to an abortion and women’s rights are being attacked in places like Afghanistan and even in Europe, in places like Hungary and Poland. It’s vital that progressive groups regroup and unite because we’re up against opponents who are very organised and united in their campaign against progress.

Looking at the industry, have things changed? The main thing is that there is a political consciousness around the issue of inequality, which didn’t exist before. Even if inequalities still exist, there is at least an awareness of the inequalities, which wasn’t the case before.  We weren’t suggesting that those with power were deliberating blocking the road for women or minority groups but rather that they were looking at everything through their point of view.  Today, everyone understands selection committees need to be diverse and transparent in their selection processes. Everyone understands, the urgency of opening up cinema because there is a whole section of the population that doesn’t recognize itself in cinema and has moved to the platforms. In terms of representation behind the camera and at the festivals we’re far from seeing equality but at least there is awareness of the situation.

DEADLINE: What are you working on next?

ZLOTOWSKI: I am co-writing the screenplay for the remake of Emmanuelle with Audrey Diwan. That’s great fun but I can’t really say anything about it as it’s Audrey’s project. As a director, I am working on another film and drama. I don’t want to say much about the film yet as it’s too early apart from the fact that it’s an erotic thriller.

The trailer for the film can be seen here.

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