A feel-bad romance from France
In Rebecca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children—one of the most enervating films of the year—the main character, Rachel, is an attractive, un-partnered school teacher, satisfied with her career and yet well aware that her proverbial biological clock is ticking.
So it’s no surprise that the 40-ish Rachel (Virginie Efira) suddenly and decisively becomes involved with Ali (Roschdy Zem), an automotive designer she bumps into one night. As it happens, he’s the similarly available father of a five-year-old girl named Leila. Rachel and Ali each have the ability to make the other one laugh. It gets physical. And thus the stage is set for another trip down the rabbit hole of interpersonal relations and the vicissitudes of human beings’ never-ending search for companionship.
Rachel is Jewish; Ali is not. Rachel smokes weed and Ali does not—in passing, we’re a little surprised that cigarette smoking at the dinner table is okay among the educated classes in France. As the friendship takes root we can see that their relationship is a “regular” one, not exactly as advertised in popular mythology but certainly serviceable. Nevertheless, signs of strain slowly begin to appear.
The “X” factor is little Leila. She misses her mommy Alice (Chiara Mastroianni), not quite to the same degree that daddy Ali regrets missing his favorite soccer team’s games, but significantly. Rachel desperately craves a child to mother, maybe a little too desperately. Her needs tend to belabor the little trio’s progress.
No matter how thoughtfully each social occasion is arranged, somebody always gets left out, subtly at first. Leave it to the five-year-old to cut through the unspoken tension by blurting out, “Why is Rachel always here?” It dawns on the sensitive Rachel that raising one’s own child is difficult enough, but when that offspring isn’t really yours the discrepancy can sometimes be insurmountable.
As set in motion by writer-director Zlotowski (Grand Central), Other People’s Children chooses to go into more detail with Rachel’s situation than with Ali’s. She has a kindly old father on her side (played by the filmmaker’s real-life father, journalist Michel Zlotowski) and a younger sister (Yameé Couture) who’s just about to have a baby of her own. Rachel ultimately takes refuge in her Judaism, and also in the advice of her gynecologist, portrayed by the nonpareil documentarian Frederick Wiseman.
Meanwhile, at school Rachel is deeply involved in sorting out Dylan (Victor Lefebvre), a promising student with a disciplinary problem—he cuts class too much, and Rachel assumes responsibility for getting through to him. As warning signs continue to pop up in Rachel’s setup with Ali and his daughter, it becomes obvious that Rachel wants to hold on to Dylan and the challenge presented by his temperament. And at the same time she’s beginning to have her doubts about Ali, who’s less available to her than she previously realized.
French filmmakers are famously unafraid of presenting flawed characters at the center of family dramas. For all her leadership at the school and her by-the-book attempts at rapprochement with Leila—the “Foufounette” kitty cat routine should be awarded some sort of prize for well-intentioned futility—it’s Rachel we can’t stop worrying about. Maybe she should have found some other guy. It might occur to a viewer that Rachel could drop everything and run off to … where? Marrakesh? The Maldives? Taos? Chances are she’d be unsatisfied wherever she goes.
Actor Efira does an admirable job with such a challenging character. Other People’s Children shows the parts usually left out of the amour fou romances and whirlwind enchantments that most people buy tickets to see. Sometime in the last reel Rachel utters what has to be a classic Gallic bittersweet whine: “Life is both short and long.” That’s something to think about the next time you recall dropping someone like a dirty Kleenex. They should have titled this “Other People’s Lives” and let it go at that.