A Woman’s Life (2017)

A Woman’s Life is a beautifully staged and acted period drama by Stéphane Brizé that unfolds over decades in 19th century France.

C'est La Vie

by Alexa Dalby

A Woman’s Life

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In 19th century Normandy, the course of a woman’s life, this adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel Une Vie confirms, is determined from girlhood to womanhood by the men in her life. As a minor aristocrat and heiress, Jeanne (as touchingly portrayed by Judith Chemla) lives in blissfully optimistic girlishness in a sunlit pastoral idyll in a small chateau under the benign protection of her father (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and mother (Yolande Moreau). Her early marriage to a handsome, penniless neighbouring viscount (Swann Arlaud) does not bring the happiness she expects. His unfaithfulness brings about a terrible tragedy, and a rift with her faithful maid and only friend Rosalie (Nina Meurisse). Her son Paul (Finnegan Oldfield) grows up to be a feckless wastrel who exploits for her love for him into her old age.

Director Stéphane Brizé (The Measure of a Man) tells Jeanne’s story over decades, skipping backwards and forwards through time. The significance of some recurring images – Jeanne striding through desolate winter fields, for example – only crystallises as events unfold. The accumulated detail of the period recreation feels uncomfortably authentic: the bare, flickering candlelight in draughty cheerless chateaux, the muddy countryside, the excruciating close-up of Jeanne on her wedding night, the growing restrictions of her life and its rigid social and moral codes symbolised as her surroundings physically close in. As Jeanne ages, Chemla subtly adapts her looks, her posture and demeanour.

There are good times, but the bad outnumber them in a heartbreaking way, and scenes such as the one where Jeanne discovers her husband’s betrayal are searing. The aftermath, triggered by the interference of the Catholic church, is presented as a single, memorable image of naked bodies in a sylvan setting. Though Jeanne’s life may be disillusioning, she retains her innocent outlook in a patriarchal world. But ironically her world – that of provincial aristocrats in fin de siècle financial decline – is itself slowly disappearing as the class balance readjusts moving towards the 20th century. And although there is a morsel of resolution and hope offered in consolation at the end, the overriding emotion of this woman’s life is one of sadness, waste and loss.

A Woman’s Life won the FIPRESCI prize for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, screened at the 61st BFI London Film Festival and is released on 15 January 2018 in the UK.

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