Written by Stéphane Brizé (The Measure Of A Man, Not Here To Be Loved), and Florence Vignon (A Few Hours Of Spring, The Grocer’s Son), A Woman’s Life is a doleful period drama gleaned from the classic 1977 novel by Guy de Maupassant.
It follows the ill fated life of Jeanne, Judith Chelma (This Summer Feeling, Spiral (TV)), a convent-educated girl of privilege not spared the realities of life as a woman in the 19th century.
The film opens to Jeanne’s father, Jean-Pierre Darroussin (Le Havre, Heat Wave), kneeling in the dirt, teaching her to plant and water crops on the grounds of the family estate. Later, when Jeanne’s son, Paul, is born, she kneels where her father had, sowing her roots a generation deeper.
The family made their wealth by farming the land. Jeanne’s very makeup is characterised by an earthy affinity with her bucolic surroundings. Director Stephane Brize makes good artistic use of the fact.
As the film moves through the stages of Jeanne’s life, it transitions from sequence to sequence with cuts distinctive by changing weather. The effect is a subtle stroke of savvy storytelling.
Look for it and you’ll find Mother Nature’s starring role in almost every scene. Gay games of croquet are enjoyed in fine summer afternoons. Lifelong friends Jeanne and maid Rosalie, Nina Meurisse (Armed Hands, The King’s Daughters), chase one another around a sun-drenched orchard. The branches of trees strain against the wind when trouble is afoot. Rain lashes at boggy roads when Jeanne’s fortune fades.
The sun shines when Viscount Julien de Lamare, Swann Arlaud (Romantics Anonymous, Bloody Milk), arrives at the estate but out of shot a dog barks at the stranger. Jeanne quickly falls in love with the nobleman and their romance blossoms.
You can count the tropes of a run of the mill period drama as they appear on screen. Would it hurt the genre to shed even a patch of its predictable dullness? For the first half of this film I wondered how I was ever going to review it? Barely anything happened and the aristocrats that dined and did little else offered up as much nuance as stiff old mannequins.
But, while A Woman’s Life does go a long stretch without any kind of excitement whatsoever, when it starts, about midway through, it barrels along with its undoing of Jeanne at a ceaseless, cruel pace.
The story picks up when the philandering Viscount settles in to his cushty new setup. Soon, Julien plagues the quaint and rosy little life Jeanne and her family have made for themselves by means of adultery and rape. But, despite his best efforts to mess everything up, he’s forgiven or is spared by Jeanne, who sweeps his nastiness under the carpet for fear of embarrassing him.
That’s what the story of A Woman’s Life is all about: a woman who dutifully suffers the injustice, misfortune and cold hard reality of life. Judith Chelma bears the weight of it all excellently. Her posture becomes noticeably crumpled as she ages. The betrayal and the heartache spreads ashen across her face and constricts her vocal chords. Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé (Grigris, Last Stop 174) projects it all masterfully with a tight, close-up camera throughout to catch every character’s flinching resentment and pondering suffering.
There’s a special film to be discovered here. It’s a shame it’s hidden under the dusty, doily veil of a pretty piece of period cinema.
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