The Other Women
By Eileen G’Sell
Other People’s Children
Dir. Rebecca Zlotowski, France, Music Box Films
With its blonde protagonist, breezy piano intro, and iris shot opening over a night-lit Eiffel Tower, Rebecca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children seems at first to be the cinematic equivalent of a lemon soufflé. Rachel (Virginie Efira) is a 40-year-old French teacher at a Paris public high school who, as the first ten minutes make clear, is Really Excited About a Guy. She steals furtive glances at her iMessages while her students zone out to a classic film (Roger Vadim’s 1957 version of Dangerous Liaisons), continuing to coyly check her texts during a faculty meeting and while her ex-husband chauffeurs her across town to her weekly music lesson. When at last the identity of her onscreen paramour is revealed to be a man named Ali (Roschdy Zem), another student in her guitar class, we’re in full blown rom-com mode. As Rachel and Ali stroll hand-in-hand across a bridge after their first date, the skyline glitters with possibilities. It’s never too late, we surmise, for a woman’s life to transform with a sudden staircase kiss. It’s never too late to have it all (and in Paris!).
But for Rachel, at least on one front, it may well be too late—and here’s where Zlotowski tests the limits of the rom-com genre. When Rachel’s gynecologist (played by 93-year-old filmmaker Frederick Wiseman) informs her during an annual exam that “there’s not a lot of follicles” active in her ovaries, she’s clearly alarmed. “If you want a child, now is the time,” he reports laconically. “Think of months as years.” From then on, Rachel approaches her budding relationship with Ali with a new sense of urgency, complicated by the fact that her new beau also happens to be a fifty-something papa to a four-year-old named Leïla (Callie Ferreira-Goncalves).
For the first half of the film, we witness Rachel both fall deeply in love with Ali and embrace the joy—and entropy—of playing mom to a child who is not her own: pulling over when Leïla’s repeatedly car sick, picking her up from kiddie Taekwondo, calling her name in panic when the girl wanders off at a rodeo during a holiday weekend in Camargue. Meanwhile, for all the apparent challenges of juggling his roles as car designer, soccer fan, and devoted father, Ali doesn’t seem terribly invested in keeping Leïla an only child, requesting permission to “come inside” Rachel even after she has made it clear that she does not take birth control (a request to which, given her circumstances, she happily consents). “I think I’m falling in love with you,” he tells her in one of their many steamy bedroom scenes. And as a viewer, it’s not hard to fall in love with both of them.
As a relatable, yet aspirational heroine for women today, Rachel exudes an ease with herself all too rare to see onscreen—at least in the more neurotic American version of this type of film. She’s luminous with minimal makeup, though her crow’s feet and brow lines are in plain sight. She rolls her own joints, smokes an occasional cigarette after dinner parties, and wears rumpled Springsteen t-shirts to bed. She’s the kind of woman who walks around naked after first-time sex as though she’s lived in her lover’s flat for years. She’s also the kind of woman who goes out of her way to keep a struggling student from getting kicked out of school, and who’s not above locking eyes with a smitten, younger colleague to nudge him to vote with her when faculty decides. When a sojourn uphill with Leïla slows them both down, Rachel buys the girl a helmet and bike seat to expedite their commute, pedaling forward in white platform heels, her wavy mane flying behind her like a flag you could learn to salute.
Even amid Rachel’s fertility woes, occasional tensions with Ali, and the unplanned, yet welcome pregnancy of her younger sister Louana (Yamée Couture), the film’s first two acts keep things buoyant. Efira imbues Rachel with a capacity for slapstick on par with her knack for pensive close-ups. In one scene, when Leïla rushes to her father’s postcoital bed in the middle of the night, wailing of nightmares, Rachel escapes nude onto Ali’s balcony and gets locked out—a Gallic take on Nora Ephron if there ever was.
But as the film progresses, it becomes clearer that Zlotowski exploits the staples of the rom-com genre only to temper them. In the film’s third act, she leaves us as jarred and devastated as Rachel herself, betrayed not only by Ali but by the narratives that women are groomed to believe. When he breaks things off, Doris Day crooning in the background, Ali cites Leïla as the reason he must return to an ex he no longer loves. “My choices have consequences,” Ali emphasizes to Rachel—as though hers somehow do not. When Rachel explains that, due to her age, she feels “trapped,” Ali’s befuddled response evinces an all-too-common male cluelessness. “You can choose to love, you can choose not to have kids,” she explains through tears. “Or to have more kids. It’s not a problem for you…It’s too late for me.”
If, in the United States, the decline of the rom-com has been as celebrated as bemoaned, in France the genre has been ever evolving—making room for a version of “happy ever after” even when relationships don’t work out or when, in Rachel’s case, starting a biological family is no longer in the cards. “These are the lowest-stakes movies we have that are also about our highest standards for ourselves,” insisted critic Wesley Morris in 2019, lamenting the decline of the genre. “[These are] movies predicated on the improvement of communication, the deciphering of strangers and the performance of more degrees of honesty than I ever knew existed.”
Zlotowski also wrote the film, basing it in part on her own experience, and part of her honesty conveys that however huge and final Rachel’s loss, it is not, ultimately, all-consuming. She is surrounded by an extended kinship network that confirms that even when she is single, she is certainly not alone. Her sister and father joke with her over Chinese food after Rosh Hashanah; her coworkers deeply respect her; her former struggling student thanks her from a brasserie that she happens to visit months after his graduation, where he has landed meaningful work as a waiter. The film’s depiction of Paris, too, upends cliches, even as it also occasionally affirms them. Yes, adults drink wine and still smoke and make everyday garments seem anything but basic. But they also are not all thin and beautiful, and they do not stay young forever. “I’m sorry,” Ali’s ex-wife, Alice (Chiara Mastroianni), tells Rachel after she bids goodbye to the little girl she has tended to for months. “Don’t be,” Rachel responds. “Ali’s the one causing me pain. Let’s stop making excuses for men.”
Along with its feminist vantage, Other People’s Children exhibits a self-awareness in its reliance on fairly traditional dramatics. Even as Rachel should, on some level, know better than to submit fully to the throes of passion, she must do so nonetheless; she is caught up in a love story no less seductive than those of the old French films she teaches her students. “In love we only seek out pleasures,” says the male narrator in Roger Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons. “Until pleasure itself becomes sad.” When one of her students asks how the “story ends,” Rachel grins, “Badly, of course!” Of course, her romance will also end, but unlike the main characters in the film of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel, Rachel isn’t doomed.
The last scene of the film, set to a French version of Art Garfunkel’s “Waters of March” performed by Georges Moustaki, is so reminiscent of the last shot of Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World that it reads as another meta homage. We land upon the same melody in a very similar way: a single, childless woman moving through space to face her future with newfound acceptance. And what could be more romantic than that?