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Actress Virginie Efira on 'Other People's Children': 'The stepmother is usually a secondary, more utilitarian character.' – Interview

By Sandra M Ríos U
X: @sandritamrios

"Nudity is difficult to film."

Franco-Belgian actress Virginie Efira is the protagonist of "Other People's Children," a film where director Rebecca Zlotowski gives the stepmother role a different sense and prominence than usual, not only because she puts her at the center of the story but also because she distances her from evil and gives her depth.

After participating in the two most recent films by Paul Verhoeven (Elle, Benedetta) and working with the current winner of the Palme d'Or, Justine Triet, in "Victoria," she dedicated herself to Zlotwoski to play this role that she says goes beyond the theme of motherhood and the search for a space.

This feature film is part of the French Film Festival in Colombia, which takes place until October 4th in 16 cities across the country and will be released nationwide starting on September 28th.

The idea of a character rarely seen in cinema. The stepmother, the one who takes care of other people's children, is usually a secondary, more utilitarian character. Rebecca decided to bring her to the forefront and examine the bond between a peripheral character and an "adopted" family as the focal point. At the same time, she addresses a classic character but never seen in this way, and the question of femininity. She places Rachel at the heart of this contemporary story and manages to do what Flaubert said: "All you have to do to make something interesting is to care for it enough." That's really the case with my character, who is neither crazy nor rebellious. She is quite normal, discreet, and Rebecca sees her that way. She reveals her from all angles: her libido, her family relationships, her friends, her relationship with the child of this other person as well because when I mention how reserved Rachel is, it's not just about motherhood; it's also about her femininity.

Often, when you get to know a character, you feel like the director could be talking about him or herself, and suddenly you realize that he or she is also talking about you, and everything intertwines. Rebecca and I discussed what brought us together, what we wanted to do, and why. We talked about all of this instead of trying to define a character. We also discussed the bond we were going to share in and for this film, how we imagined things, our love for working together with Roschdy Zem as well, a love that could predict what sometimes happens on set.

Nudity on screen is not exactly new to me! But this is the first time I've done a funny nude scene because the body has some soft parts, and when you move in all directions, it's funny! The nude scene without a sexual aspect was very fun to shoot but also very intimidating. I was naked outside; some people could see me. I couldn't, for example, cover myself with my partner's body or with eroticism, like the kind of scene I've done in other films. Here, we were like naked worms wriggling in all directions. Yes, it was comical! Nudity is difficult to film; it's interesting to me only if it's of great interest to the director, finding the language of the body, the precise way to move, feeling that we are all together in the same movie and telling ourselves that we are achieving something higher than ourselves.

Regarding her wardrobe, initially, Rebecca and I were looking in opposite directions before finally agreeing on a look for her. When we talked about Rachel, for example, we could define a gesture of my hand in my hair, like Julia Roberts often does, i.e., a long, curly mane of hair that has to be held to keep her face free. We had to find a style that helped me understand Rachel, who teaches French in high school. First, we gave her a lot of meaning before removing many, many things. More than her clothing, Rachel is the way she moves, in constant correlation with her way of thinking. We had to find her energy levels. You always steal things from your director; I take from Rebecca small physical elements that reveal her quick thinking. On set, she has this very strong, marked confidence, which I share to some extent, even if I also talk about my complexes. It's mostly about gestures that betray a sensory, emotional language, not necessarily an intellectual one.

In a way, yes. It's a film that really looks at a woman and gives her a complex position. This film is absolutely that and in a way that is both extremely contemporary and aimed at everyone. It's a conventional film about a rare and accessible theme, motherhood, about the possibility that women belong to this shared place (that of being a mother). We also discuss a period, the idea that if I want to be a mother, I can't decide when I'm 68 years old. It's a reality that no woman escapes and that you have to resolve.

For me, more than the relationship with motherhood, the film surprises me in a more universal way with this question: What happens and what remains in this long and short life? In the film, Rachel not only has to find her place and understand who she is, which is complex, but also find a place alongside a girl who is not hers, and that's another thing. Do you dive headfirst or not? Rachel tries to find a place in the life of this girl, clearly without any rivalry between her and the girl's mother. There's this great biological desire to be a mother, which Rebecca succeeds wonderfully in portraying.

It's amazing how Roschdy Zem keeps reinventing himself. He does things in the film that he has never done before. He is in a perpetual state of amazement. We didn't really know each other, although I felt through his roles the incredible strength that emanates from him. We got along very well. He fit in with Rebecca's cinema, the way she wanted to tell her story. He and I are quite concrete, which places the story in a less unreal place, more organic, and maybe this allowed us to interact smoothly. He wanted to immerse himself in this story, so nudity in every sense of the word.

It's driven by Rebecca's character and determination. There's assertiveness in what she wants to see, where she wants to take us. She has a kind of energy that makes you want to follow her, to give more. Her gaze is eager, a systematic stimulus to look beyond, to see that things are progressing. She never pushes the actor into wanting to do it right; it's more a matter of doing. She also provides cinematic cues that are not psychological. For example, in the scene where my character and Ali, played by Roschdy Zem, meet, I wanted to add a lot of little things, and she summarized it with an image stripped of everything, saying to me, "I want it to be like a conveyor belt." Rebecca is very gentle but with true authority.

Yes, Rebecca showed me Diane Keaton's films, which were very inspiring for Rachel's body language. Keaton has facial mobility, a certain courtesy in her smile, which are also in my character: the polite smile, the importance of laughter as well. I was particularly impressed by Alan Parker's "Shoot the Moon." It's conventional, accessible, demanding, and profound American cinema that maintains its target at a certain level. The films were, for Rebecca and me, additional ways to agree and share a vision. She gave me the freedom to use them or not, whatever I wanted from what I had seen. There are also films that you have in mind, such as those by Claude Sautet and Romy Schneider. I think, for example, of "A Simple Story," where Schneider looks at men with a funny and distant understanding, without thinking that all men are bastards, but rather, as in "Other People's Children," it's more the gaze of a woman who doesn't seek or ask anything from men but observes without judgment.

Image credits: George Lechaptois / Les Films Velvet

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