A Woman’s Life, 2016.
Directed by Stéphane Brizé.
Starring Judith Chelma, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau, Swann Arlaud, and Nina Meurisse.
A young woman sets out on the path to adulthood and gradually experiences the harsh realities of a woman’s life in the mid 19th-century.
Life is never as good or as bad as one thinks, wrote Guy de Maupassant in his novel Une Vie, the source material for this sombre and touching film from Stéphane Brizé (The Measure of a Man, Mademoiselle Chambon).
Essentially this is a story of expectations. Jeanne (Judith Chema), the daughter of nobility in mid 19th-century France has led a sheltered existence for most of her early life. Days spent tending the garden and learning about the natural growth of things with her father the Baron Simon (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) fill the innocent convent school educated Jeanne with happy delight.
This life rapidly changes following a semi-arranged marriage to Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), an unpleasant young man whose family are not as affluent as Jeanne’s. Emasculated by this fact, he takes every opportunity to stake whatever claims on authority he has – from pettily controlling the temperature of the farm house by restricting the use of fire wood, to far more sinister and abusive actions. The unsuitable young man forces himself upon the maid Rosalie (Nina Meurisse) and also conducts an affair with another member of the aristocracy Gilberte de Fouville (Clotilde Hesme).
A melancholy tone thus descends upon Jeanne’s life. A young woman, once so innocent and in love with nature becomes progressively depressed and dejected by the cruel twists of the events that evolve around her. Her own motherhood offers little hope, merely bringing out the divisions between men and women even more clearly. Constantly brought down by the realities of life, the audience is left hoping for Jeanne to take decisive action. When this does not appear to be likely, the hope switches towards the future and the possibility for change.
A mostly handheld-shot work of dreamlike ambience, the story is partially told through remembered scenes and fractured interpretations of past events. Occasionally scenes, such as Jeanne and lost best friend Gilberte dancing around the garden in their Sunday best are played out more than once, heightening the intensity and Jeanne’s dwelling on previous happier times.
Music is used sparingly in the film, with just one piano piece from Oliver Baumont used throughout. Jeanne’s poetic narration segments are metaphoric diary entries, adding another layer of what is a film of despairing fragility. Finding emotional depth in long scenes with little action or no dialogue, Brizé’s film brings out markings of the anxiety and complex details of the everyday of Jeanne’s life. And it is unmistakably her life – for there is no other perspective on the actual events that have so damaged her and brought her into such despair. This experimental style of approach is a courageous one, telling a tale of personal tragedy with no other witness than the central player herself. A deeply expressive and thoughtful film.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert W Monk is a freelance journalist and film writer.