The Spool / Movies
Other People’s Children offers a dreamlike lens on existential parental concerns
The trials and tribulations of being a woman at 40 are uniquely realized in this compelling French drama.
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The trials and tribulations of being a woman at 40 are uniquely realized in this compelling French drama.

Ticking clocks come in many shapes and forms in movies. In the case of writer/director Rebecca Zlotowski’s new film Other People’s Children, a ticking clock looms large over protagonist Rachel (Virginie Efira) in the form of how long she can still conceive children. Now 40, she’s been informed by medical professionals that time is slipping away if she still wants to have kids. It’s a development that reshapes her priorities and hammers home the finite nature of her very existence.

This revelation occurs just as Rachel begins to fall in love with Ali (Roschdy Zem), who has a four-year-old daughter named Leila (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves) from an earlier marriage. Not only has Rachel found a man she loves, but she also has a kid who makes her feel fulfilled as a parent. Of course, no relationship comes without some level of turmoil. In this case, Ali’s ex-wife Alice (Chiara Mastroianni) never seems to be fully out of the picture. Plus, our lead character struggles to figure out if Leila really accepts her or ultimately wants her dad’s new friend to get out of their lives.

The script for Other People’s Children addresses a variety of weighty ideas, including the intricacies of dating a man who’s already had a family. Interestingly, Zlotowski’s default aesthetic throughout the film counters this, with an atmosphere that often feels like a gentle dream. Harmonious needle drops about how perfect love can be and original classical-sounding orchestral compositions dominate the soundtrack. Meanwhile, the recurring use of faded-in iris shots to slowly transition into new scenes visually evoke the idea of groggily waking up in an unfamiliar landscape.

The suggestion is that Rachel’s experiences here are so momentous they even infiltrate what she sees while snoozing. It could also reflect that the idyllic vision of family life that Rachel wants for herself, Ali, and Leila is only achievable in a fantasy. Whatever the underlying intent, this relaxed atmosphere provides an enjoyable counterbalance to the often-crushing developments plaguing Rachel’s life.

Other People's Children
Other People’s Children (France 3 Cinema)

Other aspects of Other People’s Children are deeply rooted in tangible reality. Just look at Virginie Efira’s lead turn, which proves especially marvelous whenever there’s no dialogue. Rachel’s facial expressions must convey an onslaught of complicated emotions. A scene where she discovers a shocking revelation about her sister, or another when she overhears Ali refer to her as “only a girlfriend” to his daughter each see Rachel put on a strong external face to act like nothing’s wrong.

Efira’s performance is commendably detailed and vividly evocative of reality’s nuances. Unfortunately, additional elements of Other People’s Children attempting to capture the scope of real life are more flatly realized. Most notably, there’s a recurring workplace subplot involving a younger student by the name of Dylan (Victor Lefebvre) that ends up serving a clear thematic purpose in the plot. However, the lack of time fleshing out Dylan as a three-dimensional character makes it less emotionally fulfilling than the rest of the movie.

Zlotowski’s screenplay fares much better in channeling reality in depicting the conflict between Rachel and Alice. This rapport is communicated through understated and unspoken tension rather than elaborate catfights. It’d make things so easy to paint one of these figures as an instantly detestable beast, but Other People’s Children thankfully goes the more interesting route of framing both women as recognizably messy human beings. They’re both just trying to do the best they can for the people they love. That doesn’t resolve all the understated strife that lies between them, but it does make their dynamic much more compelling to watch unfold.

Zlotowski’s default aesthetic throughout the film counters this, with an atmosphere that often feels like a gentle dream.

Choosing to hinge so much of Rachel’s existential ennui on her ability to have a child also comes off much better than expected. Many films define women solely based on their ability to give birth, but Other People’s Children uses these anxieties as a launchpad for larger concerns about mortality and aging. Rachel does yearn to be a mother or surrogate parent figure, but those desires come intertwined with her angst over what time she has left to live and other larger quandaries. It’s a great detail that’s emblematic of how much this movie treats her like a fully formed person and not just a uterus that happens to exist inside a human body.

Like so many noteworthy movies, Other People’s Children is a paradox. There’s a dreamlike quality to its filmmaking and soundtrack. The rampant tickling of the ivories in composer Robert Coudert’s score especially comes off as soothing enough to function as a gentle bedtime melody. But writer/director Rebecca Zlotowski also taps into very real elements and authentically messy dynamics between human beings with her exploration of Rachel’s life. It might sound like a contradictory mess on paper, but embracing these warring concepts serves Other People’s Children’s depiction of everyday existence incredibly well.

Other People’s Children is now playing in theaters.

Other People’s Children Trailer: