WORDS: Dave Bradley, Arts Reviewer
Writer/director Rebecca Zlotowski’s sweetly painful character drama (a.k.a. Les Enfants Des Autres) is drawn from her own personal experience, and built upon three beautiful performances from the key cast members: the Belgium-born Virginie Efira, sometime-director Roschdy Zem, and tiny Callie Ferreira-Goncalves. And where on Earth do they find these amazing child actors?
It seems that Zlotowski originally wanted to adapt Romain Gary’s novel Your Ticket Is No Longer Valid but, instead, kept seeing herself in one of the characters, and she eventually overhauled her script into something more autobiographical. She also fell pregnant during preproduction and (rather conveniently) gave birth after the end of postproduction, which might have helped add to the realism of a story so keenly concerned with the emotional welfare of small children.
Rachel (Efira) is a middle school teacher introduced showing her students a movie with a title that warns of what is to follow: Roger Vadim’s 1959 filming of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She’s well-liked by the staff, on good terms with her exes, and enjoys regular guitar lessons, and although she’s happy enough, there’s a subtle undercurrent of unfulfillment in her life because she’s, of course, childless. When she meets Ali (Zem, recently seen in The Innocent/L’Innocent), she falls hard, even though his situation is complicated by the presence of his four-year-old daughter Leila (Ferreira-Goncalves), the custody of whom he shares with her mother Alice (as played by Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Catherine Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni).
As Rachel and Ali’s relationship deepens, so does her attachment to Leila, whose initial uncertainty about her potential stepmother turns into real devotion and affection. And yet a sequence where a kind stranger on a train mistakes Leila for Rachel’s own child manages to be lightly humourous and yet bitterly sad, because we can tell where all this is surely heading.
There are subplots here (including Rachel’s attempts to help angry student Dylan, portrayed by Victor Lefebvre), as well as tricky shifts in tone, with a funny (and very French) nude scene played for laughs, while Rachel’s visits to her gynecologist are more darkly amusing, as he frankly states that time is running out for her to have kids, And, for some reason, said gynecologist is played by 90something filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, known for often-shocking documentaries like his very first, 1967’s Titicut Follies. Why? No idea, but he’s good anyway.
But, really, this is mostly about Rachel and Ali, and how dangerous their liaison might become.