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Q&A with Rebecca Zlotowski

interview

Rebecca Zlotowski is one of the most preeminent writer-directors working in France today. She attended both the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure and La Fémis. Her first film, 2011’s Belle Epine, won the Prix Louis Delluc for First Film at Cannes. Since then, Zlotowski has continued to make films that playfully turn archetypes on their head, writing with quietly provocative empathy for her characters. Her fifth and latest feature stars the luminous Virginie Efira as a woman who begins dating a man with a young daughter, sparking her own musings on legacy and motherhood.

 

Other People’s Children opens in theaters today.

Q. A great deal of the communication between the characters in Other People’s Children occurs in glances and gestures rather than dialogue. How do you decide between what goes said and unsaid?

A. Since this film is not necessarily plot-oriented, this specific form of narration, or non-narration, was connected to the story I wanted to tell. The challenge of the film was that I only had one year in someone’s life; how can you depict what’s moving in someone’s personality in just one year when you have seven weeks of shooting? These were the kinds of movements we needed to show, not only in non-verbal glances, but also in a matter of seasons.

I always narrow the time of the narrative. In Dear Prudence it’s a few days, in Grand Central it’s just one summer, in An Easy Girl it’s still one summer, so it’s about focus. The idea is to present a very théâtral bubble for a film. This time it was the most epic one for me even if it’s a very simple story, so I was very attentive.

Q. There is a tendency to write characters caught in love triangles as enemies. How did you escape this cliché and present characters that are tender toward one another while preserving a sense of tension?

A. That’s exactly what I wanted to create. Not out of ideology, as in, “I want people to be tender between each other,” it’s just the observation of my civil life; the fact that it’s representative of the breadth of emotions. There’s a pattern of emotions I’ve felt since day one, since my first film. I feel excluded by narratives where people yell at each other — I’m a stranger to hysteria. It’s something that I do not have in my body, I feel like there’s misogyny in depicting female characters who are always on the edge. I felt the need to enact revenge.

There’s revenge in showing different forms of relationships when it comes to love stories. There’s a political statement in the fact that two women around the same man can be non-rival, and the fact that the woman that man is with has no children and is not bitter. On the contrary, she can be fulfilled and happy.

Q. How did Frederick Wiseman get involved?

A. I’m very happy about involving Wiseman because I can feel the love for him in the U.S. I’m a huge admirer of Frederick Wiseman and though I’ve strayed from making films that are stylistically realistic or documentary-oriented, my early years of cinephilia were oriented by documentary.

We met in Venice, he’s living in Paris, and we became friends because we live nearby. I became very jealous of all the cameos he was doing in short films for other people, telling him, “Why do you play for them, but not for me?” He took it very seriously and said, “I’m just waiting for the part.” I said something along the lines of, “I’m writing a script, you may have a small part,” and he replied, “Rebecca, when are we shooting?” I didn’t actually have anything, so I reread the script and noticed a small role that he could possibly do: the gynecologist.

I was very happy to rewrite the film for him because he brought comedy to the scene. Gynecologist scenes are not the easiest to film or be in. When Virginie Efira arrived on set, she asked, “Do I keep my socks on?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s such a funny question.” To see Wiseman, who is the best observer of American institutions, of reality itself, in front of a woman’s pussy doing an echography felt meaningful.

Q. What qualities do you value most in a character?

A. Modesty.

Q. What’s the last film you saw and loved?

A. There’s a lot this year. I loved the Alice Diop film Saint Omer — it really impressed me. I loved The Fabelmans, I loved The Innocent by Louis Garrel — it’s super funny. I saw Saint Omer in a screening room because I know Alice and The Innocent I watched at Cannes. Us French directors know each other, so we’ll show each other our films. I saw The Fabelmans because I am a member of the Oscars and I got a screener.

There’s one I’m going to see because I’ve never seen it. It’s by an American director who I was not aware of. Her name is Penelope Spheeris and her film is Suburbia. It’s a film from 1984 about bikers and outsider punk gangs. It’s a film I’m very excited to see because it will play as part of Créteil International Women’s Film Festival, a historic women’s film festival where I asked the film to be shown.

Q. Where have you found inspiration that people might not necessarily expect?

A.In music. My Spotify playlist helped me a lot when it came to making this last film. The Discover Weekly playlist is my best friend, I happily await Monday mornings to play it, and it gives me new ideas. It opens windows in my mind and I’m very sad to say that because it’s a fucking algorithm, but this algorithm has become my friend in a way. The Shostakovich concerto that became the main theme of the film might have given me the idea for the film, maybe Spotify put me in the vibe one Monday morning to write this very specific film.

There’s also literature and other films. For instance, the opening of the film is like Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, but it’s not about the topic of the book, it’s about a certain perfume of marivaudage, libertinage, and being able to speak about love in that way impregnating your stories. A Clouzot film that I saw, A Simple Story, with Romy Schneider moved me to tears and the memory of a film by Alan Parker called Shoot the Moon is very important to me. I don’t know why, because it’s not that good, but it creates a very strong identification and a very charming perfume for me.

Q. How do you practice self-care when filmmaking?

A. I try not to smoke too much.

During this shoot I was pregnant. It was unexpected! I was on another physical vibe in relation to my work and everyone was very kind to me. When you shoot a film, when you are a director and you treat your team well, they’re very nice to you. They always ask, “Are you happy?,” “Do you have what you want?” You never know how to answer those questions.

I would say that you don’t have to think about your self-care because everyone cares about you on set. Maybe the job is the opposite, to care about others. I should just take this question to therapy, I don’t even know what to answer. [Laughs]. There’s no self-care in filmmaking, we just suffer.

Q. What image would you like to end this interview with?

A. There’s a very strong echo between our cinephilia, as film lovers, and the Manhattan skyline. When I’m in New York I feel as though I have the shape of the city in my eye, even when I didn’t know the city, I already had it in my eye because of cinema.

Photograph by Joel Meyerowitz