Rebecca Zlotowski, Alien Children

In Venice 79’s crowded competition of 23 entries, even artistic director Alberto Barbera was forced to admit that some films may have been too many while defending their quality. Each of the spectators present at the Lido, in accordance with their personal tastes, played in search of uninvited guests: after all, in the notorious “Pagellon” of critics, Children of others Rebecca Zlotowski positions herself in an anonymous position in the middle of the table, which, however, often highlights the level of films that are out of place, not good enough, not divisive, and not discussed enough. In a competition where other directors could legitimately be invited to take his place, at least to ensure a partial alternation of genres (let’s name three: Laura Citarella and Teona Strugar Mitevska, assigned to the Orizzonti section; Benedetta Argentieri, invited out of competition with the powerful documentary matchmaker), his fifth feature film, however, had many points of contact with the rest of the rich collection.

It was one of five French productions, it was one of many works representing many possible families, it even had the peculiarity that in the cast, two actors were selected in turn for a competition as directors (Roshdi Zem with My e Frederick Wiseman vs. Pair). Finally, Zlotovsky was in good company (Iñarritu, Crialese, Hogg, Panahi, Zem himself…) among those who decided to develop an autobiographical idea: in the story of a forty-year-old childless woman who falls in love with a man and loves his daughter, she transformed her past romantic relationship with director Jacques Audiard, already a father of three.

Virginie Efira, a few years older than Zlotowski, is an actress whose age is impossible to guess without knowing her: when she appears on the big screen, she gives the impression of the owner of the gift of eternal youth. Being able to play with a certain authority of characters that are even fifteen years younger than his age, he embodies a character who at first seems almost unaware of the generation he belongs to.

His Rachel is as in love as the teenage students she teaches French Literature: distracted, with eyes always on the lookout for a phone screen, looking forward to meeting Ali (Roshdie Zem), a man she knows in her guitar class. in love with. However, at her age, time has a different value than in adolescence: Rachel and Ali’s love story begins with euphoric youthful passion, but very quickly turns into a serious commitment, as befits two adults who seem to love each other. Another. In fact, time is a crucial component of this story: the main character is feverishly chasing chances and opportunities to which she is afraid to be late.


The difference between a teenager and a woman in her forties is not only in the exact desire to strengthen a new relationship as soon as possible: there is also a maturity to be able to adapt. Rachel tiptoes into Ali’s life, his times and his spaces: she watches over him and his home with devotion and justice, as if silently learning something from her partner without intrusively asking too much. If only to patch things up with his dog, he would probably get off lightly: a photo of a little girl and a drawing on a library shelf reveals a far more insidious scenario.

Once again, time is playing against Rachel, in pursuit of finally stable relationships that require maximum mutual trust: she is the one who insists on getting to know the barely mentioned little girl who is always with her mother when they are together. The core of the film is Rachel’s attempt to build a relationship with Layla, who was with Ali with his ex-wife Alice (Chiara Mastroianni): Zlotovsky stated that he wants to make room for a usually forgotten and minor character, another woman, whom he introduces as a third wheel paired with children .

He puts them on a path marked by overly predetermined stages, with the peculiarity that this time we observe them exclusively from his point of view: the first meeting, the phase of mutual exploration, initial intimacy, some subsequent inevitable distrust, fear of the inadequacy of the biological mother, joy of acceptance , the discovery that the physical presence of a child can fill a void. This last step is the most delicate because it unfairly puts Rachel in a dilemma that she vital impulse led her down the wrong path and into the fear that there is no time – always the time that runs away – to turn back.

Layla (Kelly Ferreira Goncalves, the flawless new girl of five) is a shy and charming little girl; Rachel, even with the hesitations of those who still feel like an outsider, remains bewitched by them. She would like to be loved in the way she believes she can love her, with a feeling that complements, not just subservient to, what she experiences to Ali; but also very fragile, because he is completely dependent on the subsequent stages of his sentimental relationship. It is in the episode following the first meeting with Layla that we see her talking with her gynecologist (here he is, the elderly and calm Frederick Wiseman, who retained his last name even in the film) about the likelihood that a woman of her age, only seeming young, but already at the border of the subfertility phase, she can give birth to a child with natural fertilization.

The order of these two sequences – first meeting the child she hopes to stepmother to but without any certainty, then admitting that she definitely and completely desires the child, and her – suggests that Rachel’s desire for motherhood, caused by the combination of several factors, including meeting a suitable potential father and a lingering fear of not having other options available, is exacerbated by envy: this child, already loved by both parents, can never fully belong to her and, moreover, remember that bonds between couples can be easily broken, but the relationship between parents and children is not.


If, on the other hand, Ali did not have a daughter, we can imagine that Rachel, an independent and apparently accomplished woman, would have adapted to a peaceful coexistence with a man and his dog, indifferently spending evenings at home alone or walking with children, friends, wanting nothing else; and vice versa, we can imagine that even the hypothetical absolute certainty that Ali and Layla will remain forever in life, perhaps maintaining these correct and almost complicity in relations with the child’s biological mother, would make her abandon the eternal pursuit of the ideal moment. perpetually frozen pregnancy.

It’s a shame that Zlotowski filmed the various scenes that reveal Rachel’s Jewish heritage (which also belongs to her, as she asked her father Michel Zlotowski to play the role of the protagonist’s father) without going into more detail on the cultural impact. for example, how much the images of barren women in the Bible could influence, even unconsciously, the protagonist’s beliefs about the concept of motherhood.

The director opted for a more direct and universal approach to the plot, making the symbolic choice of the main character’s name unresolved and unfinished: Rachel is actually the one we call Rachel in Italian, one of the female figures in the Bible that God made barren. and then distributed to them, only then the desired gift of fertility; and she, too, long before she was allowed to give birth, decided to become the mother of a son whom her husband Jacob conceived by a maidservant. Similarly, the modern Rachel may hope that God will finally grant her belated motherhood, perhaps appearing to her in the form of the benevolent Dr. Wiseman, but nature and chance do not have clear plans to carry out, unlike the gods.

Rachel is a teacher, and her work also takes on a very explicit symbolic function. First of all, because she daily interacts with children who are not her children, but for whom she can represent, if not a real mother figure, then a starting point. They are older than Layla, but just as difficult to understand: she must learn to pick up her signals, interpret their actions in order to properly guide them on the future paths they will explore without her. He gets used, like any teacher, to establish a continuous long-term relationship, sometimes very strong and potentially decisive in the lives of children, but inevitably leaving.

For her, who has no children to raise, who even with Leila never dares to replace the authority of her biological mother, the fear of not leaving a mark on the world if she never gives birth to a child from her womb can only be softened by the hope that he contributed to the education of many young people to life precisely at the age when they are still fragile. This is certainly a translation of the obvious meaning, but one can also try to read autobiographical inspiration in it: a director may set himself the goal of making ideas and emotions germinate in her audience through her cinema, perhaps pouring everything into it. heir.

Rebecca Zlotowski found out she was pregnant when she was in pre-production for the film. Children of others: she made her film during pregnancy (she finished when the work was already completed), so fate had mercy on the fact that this personal work could become a story of her past, but no longer her present or her future. To quote his own words, published in the press kit: it was an ironic twist of fate. Going no further into the category, he wanted to dedicate the film to nulliparous women – the medical term for those who never gave birth: more specifically, a dedication to women who wanted to but couldn’t, who lost their race against time. .

To adapt to her fate, she could also completely change the character of Rachel, giving herself, as a writer and director, the role of a biblical god who arbitrarily decides whether women should give birth, when and how. This is arrogance that was spared: he gave her a lot of his experience, then he gave her a reasonable Sage to remind her with a thoughtful smile that life is long.

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