A Woman’s Life (Cert 12)

1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 119 minutes approx.

Director Stéphane Brizé, confounds expectations by following his multi-award winning social drama The Measure Of A Man with an uncharacteristic spartan period drama. A Woman’s Life, an adaptation of the 19th century novel Une Vie by Guy de Maupassant, is only the second literary interpretation in Brizé’s catalogue.

The woman whose life we follow is Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla), a young woman recently returned from convent school to her join her parents Baron Simon-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Adélaïde (Yolande Moreau), and childhood friend/maid Rosalie (Nina Meurisse), on the family farm estate.

Soon the dashing Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud) arrives to marry Jeanne and lead her to a life of bliss and prosperity. Instead, Julien is a vain, strict, parsimonious adulterer exposing the first of a lifetime of betrayals, heartbreaks and tragedies that make up Jeanne’s trajectory in life.

Brizé’s decision to append the original title from A Life to A Woman’s Life hints at the tragic irony that becomes apparent as the film progresses – that it really isn’t Jeanne’s life at all. She may be the central character but her existence from teen to grandmother is beholden to and governed by the whims and actions of those around her, ultimately to her detriment.

If she isn’t abiding by her parents’ wishes then Jeanne is begrudgingly acquiescing to Julien’s demands of penny pinching and keeping her at home until their coat of arms is painted onto their coach. Later when she has a son, Paul (Finnegan Oldfield), his difficulties at school then his financial issues as an adult setting out on his own become Jeanne’s problem.

Seemingly taking his cue from Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, Brizé throws us right into the thick of things with no warning or explanation and continues this tact for the whole two hours. Unlike Tarkovsky’s work there is a linear(ish) story being told and is less impenetrable, the only deviation being the occasional tampering with the time frames with random flashbacks or at least what appear to be flashbacks.

Coming across as if Brizé and collaborative screenwriter Florence Vignon flicked through Maupassant’s novel, stopped at random places and decided to adapt those parts of the story, the narrative rarely stands still, skipping ahead – and often over – to the next major point to fit what I can only assume is the entire tale into the allotted run time. It may be a handy time saving device but is also one likely to cause frustration when occurring just as one scenario is getting interesting.

Within the first 25 minutes, Jeanne has returned home, met and married Julien, been deflowered, lived a pauper’s life, had a child and learned of her husband’s affair with Rosalie which begat a child and saw Rosalie sent away at Jeanne’s father expense. Yet this is a slow arty film – how is this possible? This will be a problem for audiences more attuned to faster paced mainstream cinema but those who recognised the Tarkovsky references above will be more at home with this film.

The character of Jeanne is quite paradoxical in that she isn’t stupid, naïve or easily played yet is too trustworthy and considerate towards the feelings of others for her own good, even if it exacerbates her own suffering. Jeanne clearly loves Julien even after his infidelity and mealy-mouthed apology, but he reverts to type via another affair with Countess Gilberte de Fourville (Clotilde Hesme) wife of Julien’s friend Georges (Alain Beigel).

Again, Jeanne is in a quandary when she refuses to tell Georges about the affair because it will hurt him and ruin their marriage. For such a strong woman, it is painful to watch Jeanne resign herself to the role of martyr for the sins of everyone else, and be proven correct when fate finally catches up with them. When Jeanne does get a moment of happiness, there is something or someone else just around the corner to take it from her.

Initially surprising is Brizé’s choice to film this in a 4:3 aspect ratio when period drams usually lend themselves to the full exposure a widescreen picture affords the splendour of the costumes, décor and architecture. However, similar to Xavier Dolan’s Mommy which was shot in 1:1 ratio (like a mobile phone camera), it becomes apparent through the intimate camerawork that this decision wasn’t for pretension’s sake at all.

By keeping the imagery contained within this tight parameter the viewer is never distracted from being focused on the cast or scene at hand. I don’t think there is a single wide shot in the entire film – every frame is filled entirely with a character in relative close up, sometimes expanding to a two shot. This makes Jeanne’s world seem compact and claustrophobic whilst making the audience feel very voyeuristic.

Dialogue is sparse, the eerie silence often deafening, whilst exposition is shared via letters narrated by the cast to cover the incidents that take place during the time skips, but it is the subtly excellent make-up employed to age the characters, Jeanne in particular, that reveal when we’ve entered a later period in the story.

The film’s heart is unquestionably the tour de force performance from Judith Chemla as Jeanne, an unbecoming figure of melancholy and introversion with a transfixing screen presence, rarely needing to speak to convey the innocence, suffering and fortitude of this complex character. She is not a heroine but a victim, yet stands strong as a survivor of a litany of vicissitudes that would have crushed someone much weaker.

Bleak, uncomfortable, challenging and tangibly naturalistic, A Woman’s Life straddles the fine line between cinema as art and a platform for indulgence. This bold period drama eschews fancy aesthetics and refuses to ameliorate the grim realities of life with daring aplomb, but its jaunty narrative and minimalist, arthouse sensibilities are unlikely to appeal to those expecting another film like The Measure Of A Man however.

 

Extras:

French 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio

French Stereo LCPM

English Subtitles

 

From The Novel To The Film by Stéphane Brizé

Making A Woman’s Life

Stills Gallery

Original Trailer

Reversible Sleeve

FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet Featuring New Essay By Margaret Deriaz

 

Rating – *** ½

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