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by Sarah Williams Feature Articles Featured Film Interviews

A Dress Without the Knitting: An Interview With Rebecca Zlotowski

April 14, 2023

Now on her fifth feature, Rebecca Zlotowski’s films are populated with complicated women. The director has a knack for capturing doubts and quietly subverting the archetypes her characters can too neatly be boxed into. Her screenwriting credits extend beyond her directorial work, often into more transgressive territory (You and the Night, the upcoming Emmanuelle, and more experimental territory in Despite the Night). These bleed into her more traditional dramas, which hinge on complicated, and often non-traditional connections. Then there was An Easy Girl, which reframed a classically Rohmerian sensibility, like what can be seen in Pauline at the Beach, through the connections existent between the women who are made objects of desire.

Her newest film, in competition at Venice last year and hitting U.S. theaters on April 21, Other People’s Children, is about the delicate balance of conflicted desires. Unlike some of Zlotowski’s earlier work, it’s not a film depicting a coming of age, but rather a coming into it. Giving nuance to those on the periphery of family, Virginie Efira is stunningly open as a stepmother coming to terms with not yet having children of her own, and how that specific want is shaped in her. Prior to its U.S. release next week, I spoke with Zlotowski on her writing process, the power of sentimental realism, and the reconstruction of family dynamics in her latest work.

Other People’s Children originally began as an adaptation of the novel Your Ticket is No Longer Valid, which is centered around a man’s experience. What was your process in changing focus to this stepmother figure in Other People’s Children?

Actually, I could not escape from this story; I didn’t want to. I was feeling ashamed in a way, and that’s why I used a lot of detail in the beginning. I hid myself behind the adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel. Obviously, it’s a women’s portrait, but then the starting point of the film was working with Roschdy Zem. Even though he’s an amazing actor, the lead character is the woman. Thinking of the project, it’s weird that I started with this; the history says a lot [about] the shyness we may have embracing these subjects. Even for me, trying to find strength and freedom in the way I write… it was a long journey. Eventually at the end, after the pandemic stuck us all together in our domestic places, unable to go outside and have drinks and smoke cigarettes with other people, eventually I just had myself. I was a stepmom, and nearly forty, wanting a child, and this was a starting point of good Romain-esque material. I felt that maybe cinema is about that; trying to escape from the rules of your mind, and face something you have to say.

Your last film was quite overt in its depiction of how gendered performance can affect societal class structures. Other People’s Children is even more overt in its themes; how do you balance making these themes of gendered social dynamics overt in your films?

In An Easy Girl, there’s something about class, of course. It’s less about gender; instead, a fake image where the real story is behind. But then, in Other People’s Children, there’s something about the mise en scène, and even the subject that tries to erase something in the back, in order to put in front just the emotions and a very simple, sentimental story that could be a moral study. You know, those moral studies from the seventies or the eighties. You have Alan Parker, or you have Kramer vs. Kramer and An Unmarried Woman.

Some people could say it’s a bourgeois approach because it’s a sentimental subject among people that do not lack anything [other] than love. And I would say that’s essential. But anyway, it’s not about social realism, it’s about sentimental realism in a way. So it’s the way I approach this film. Sometimes I felt that I was missing something with the mise en scène of Other People’s Children, and then I realized that it was tougher — it was really tough to make something.

You know, when you read Proust, there is one phrase that I really love when he says that good writing is when you have a dress without the knitting.  And it means you cannot tell where it’s sewn, you cannot tell where it’s connected. The parts of the dress are connected, and I try to do that with this film.

Instead of letting the most heightened drama come to the center in Other People’s Children, either the shot will cut earlier than expected (including a pivotal moment while driving), or the score will swell to take precedence over dialogue. What was the process of cultivating this dramatic restraint without losing the quiet emotional power of the film?

It’s something quite organic at this stage of making [the film]. Like, for instance, you mentioned this [driving] scene. It’s the only scene that had to be storyboarded because [you] can’t tell, but this is the film I use the most special effects. For instance, we are in a virtual set. Because we had this child, I didn’t want to bring her on a real road. I didn’t want to put her in a place where it would be difficult for the acting. I wanted to make it seem easier for her. So we went to this place, which is full of lights everywhere. So the light is beautiful on the cast. Anyway, it was a huge thing for a very simple scene. So it’s the only one where everything was absolutely set before. But usually, the way I make films is I just sing a lot before, right?

And I just cut the shots in the morning on the set, because it’s not the same when you have this beautiful sunshine outside. Sometimes you do not have the location you wanted. So I do that at the very last moment, the day, the morning on the set. 

Was there a specific role that drew you to casting Virginie Efira?

I mean, the question is, why didn’t I hire her before for other films! I’m going to be boring, because she’s really the best. Mostly, to me, she’s one of the most charismatic actresses we have, and this was obvious for me. I like her. I like spending time with her. I like having drinks with her. And we have fun together. At a certain moment in your life and career, you need to do things with people you like!

But the real reason for the part is that I think she carries something so fulfilled in her sensuality, in her face, in the fact that she’s funny. She’s full of humor. She doesn’t lack anything. When you see this woman, she’s 45 years old, and you’re like, I don’t want to know what’s her life or whatever. I can tell that she’s happy. I can tell that she’s not bitter. I can tell that she has sex… And so to build the character at the beginning, I needed someone that was in no place of bitterness or envy or dryness because I didn’t want [the idea] that a child-free woman would be lacking something. I wanted to talk about a desire, the creation of a desire, not the lack.

You had originally studied screenwriting in film school, not directing. Do you think primarily coming from the point of view of a writer changes how you stage your actors?

It’s very flexible to direct. I mean, to direct actors and actresses, you need to say words. And so that’s why I may not be the best director; I’m not the most visual and even the images I have, they come from the words. The fact that I come from literature, [that] I’ve been studying forever — I’m like, I love books. I love words. 

I’m chatty, as you can tell. And I feel that if you’re generous with words, you can take the risk that people understand you. We have to take the risk of people understanding, and I feel that when it comes to actors and actresses, I wondered why I was so lucky with actors and actresses. It was never painful for me to cast actors and actresses, even when there were stars like Natalie Portman or Lea Seydoux. In the beginning, it was always a very simple pass between them and me, and I feel like it’s because I talk! I talk to them, and at the end, eventually, you can explain what you want and they need that sometimes. So yes, as a screenwriter, it gives me that advantage.

This isn’t the first time you’ve cast your father in a film, but it is the most prominent/personal, compared to Planetarium. Was this role always intended for him?

That’s funny because the parts for my dad are written for him. It’s not that “oh, there is a dad and he’s gonna do that.” Or there is this guy in Planetarium and he’s gonna do that in Planetarium. It’s just, I asked him to play a dream that he had mentioned to me when I was a teenager. So literally, I think Planetarium is images made of my father’s dreams. So fucking Jewish, I know. And then the film, it was just like the pure simplicity and pleasure that I mentioned. Like with Virginie, it’s after the pandemic, and I didn’t want to make a hard thing.

I knew that I needed the light with this film because it was so personal, and I could at every moment say, “okay, stop everything.” It’s too fucked up, it’s too personal. So I wanted to be with Roschdy [who] I love, Virginie [who] I love; and the father had been written thinking of my father’s prosody, my father’s looks. And he was available and very cheap and really wanted to do it! And the grave is my mom’s grave. It’s not an imagination.

There are some key moments in developing your on-screen family dynamic, including the scene in the graveyard where they discuss religious ideas around abortion. What in your script stuck out to you when developing them?

I wanted the family to be always debating, exchanging. I wanted to depict a strong united family, even if it was hit by pain. When they are at the cemetery, which is a place where I personally spent a lot of time in my life and also where I learned how to drive, I wanted that because I think it’s connected and it’s a way you can depict a family very economically. When I say economically, it’s like in a few images, you understand absolutely what they’re made of. It’s like when you see them for the first time under the tallit at the synagogue, to me it was a perfect image of a family. Let’s do that in one image: they like each other, they have, uh, pain and suffering, not friends all the time, but they do it in the “lighter” way. And life is bigger than that.

Frederick Wiseman’s cameo as your protagonist’s gynecologist garnered some buzz during Venice from a lot of film enthusiasts. Would you talk a little about how that came about?

So actually, I was jealous that he did cameos for other filmmakers in France and not for me! We met in an elevator in Venice. Not this Venice obviously, but a Venice he showed a film at — I think he shows a film there every year in competition. And I was part of a jury, and I was taking the elevator. I was very dressed up, and I had those shiny shoes, and of course I recognized Fred Wiseman because before being a filmmaker, I was a teacher. I used to be a teacher in a college, on documentary [filmmaking]. I come from the documentary; it’s weird because I have nothing with the documentary in my films, and I like to think that I’m someone who likes formality and stylization of reality. But I was mesmerized by his documentaries. Anyway, so I love him, I’m his greatest fan. We met in the elevator, and he’s living in Paris. So we became friends in Paris. We kept talking together and then I was like, how come you [perform roles] for others and not for me?

And he said, just give me a part. And, you know, how old is he? So I was like, if I do not give him a part in this very film, it may really jeopardize this collaboration. So I read the script. There was no part for him. The gynecologist was supposed to be a woman. She was supposed to be this woman from the seventies; she’s 60-something, smoking cigarettes in her lobby. And she’s this very nice person [who is] struggling. And then I was like, this is much more interesting if it’s Wiseman. We need to re-enchant those scenes. We need to have ideas in order to make men okay with the scene, because to them it’s like a slasher!

When they see a woman at the gynecologist, they feel like they want to close their eyes just a bit. They’re like, can we stop it right now? And it’s just our lives. Anyway, so Wiseman came for that and he brought everything he is to [the role]. And I almost edited the papers, the Doctor Fred Wiseman, PhD stuff, and he wanted to keep them. And I was very glad. He’s the nicest person. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 15.