A Woman’s Life | Une Vie (2017)

January 9th, 2018
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Stephane Brize | Drama | France | 114min

Hot on the heals of his 21st century social drama, The Measure of a Man, that won the Cannes Best Actor Award in 2015, the adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s first novel, is a painterly domestic tragedy set in 18th century Normandy that tackles similar social issues occuring 300 hundred years beforehand.

Intimate in scale (shot on Academy Ratio) and delicately appealing, A WOMAN’S LIFE follows Chemla’s bon chic bon genre heroine Jeanne from her teenage years until her mid forties, echoing the the kind of tortured tragedy familiar in all Maupassant’s work – in some ways he’s the French equivalent of Thomas Hardy in that his stories are firmly rooted in the landscape with a palpable feel for Gallic traditions. We first meet the heroine Jeanne (Judith Chemla) planting lettuces in the pottager of the Chateau she shares with her Baron father (Jean Pierre Darroussin) and Baroness mother (Yolande Moreau).

Brizé’s choice of the Academy ratio – used in silent film – embodies the closeted almost claustrophobic nature of Jeanne’s domestic environment full of love and laughter until she is introduced to her future husband, a flawed and improvished nobleman, Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arland). Her life will never be the same again.

Working with his regular writer Florence Vignon, Brizé condenses the novel into an engrossing drama (just short of two hours) that quails away from the habitual mannered approach of classic period dramas to create a naturalistic and impressionist portrait that retains considerable dramatic heft, thanks to Anne Klotz’ suberb editing, while also being sensitive and delicately rendered in Antoine Heberle’s exquisite visuals that flip from vibrant summer days to the wretched, rain-soaked wintery ones that hint at doom and disaster from the beginning.

The film unravels in a succession of suggestive short scenes that sketch out episodes in the narrative leaving us to fill in the gaps with our own imagination and leave time for Jeanne to contemplate and process her thoughts and feelings. Married life with Julien is no bed of roses : when Jeanne finds her maid Rosalie’s bedroom empty in the night, a brief but melodramtic scene in the garden follows implying that Julien and Rosalie are up to no good. It soon emerges that Julien’s poor family traits are inbred.

True to the page, Brize reworks Maupassant’s mistrust of religion and the church in general: The consequences of Jeanne’s reliance on the family pastor (Francois-Xavier Ledoux) for moral guidance over her husband’s behaviour lead to more heartake involving her seemingly close friend and neighbour Georges de Fourville (Alain Beigel), whose wife, Gilberte (Clotilde Hesme) flirts with the cheating Julien.

The Baron, a strong but largely silent performance from Jean-Pierre Darroussin, is extremely vocal when it comes to his grandson (played by Finnegan Oldfield as a late teenager and beyond) who appears to have inherited his father’s profligacy and lack of integrity, but Jeanne turns a blind eye to these traits, investing her love in him and channeling all her hope for the future in his empty promises.

Judith Chemla (Camille Rewinds) gives a calm but resonating performance as Jeanne generating considerable empathy as she slowly absorbs years of sadness, loss and emotional turmoil to her considerable detriment as she reaches middle age. One again Stephane Brizé has made a powerful and immersive character drama, impeccably crafted and enormously moving. MT




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