Dubbed as one of the greatest writers in history, Guy de Maupassant is well known for his naturalistic style and skill at depicting the harsh realities of ordinary life. This is none the clearer than in his first full-length novel Une vie, which is captured beautifully by director Stéphane Brizé in the film adaptation, A Woman’s Life.
This period film is set in 19th century Paris and follows the ups and downs (though mostly downs) of young Jeanne du Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla). We first see Jeanne as a cheerful young noblewoman enjoying her parents’ company on their farm, but things quickly take a turn when she meets handsome Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud). She falls in love, they get married, and so begins her mostly miserable life. Her domineering husband turns out to be a serial cheater, who she struggles to deal with under the pressure of her religious instruction. After that chapter of her life takes a tragic turn, her son, who she dotes on, grows up to be a manipulative gold digger who plays on her devotion to him.
The heartbreak and pain Jeanne feels throughout her generally sad existence is punctuated with flashbacks to happier times. After she receives another letter from her son with another outlandish demand for money, for example, the scene quickly cuts to a soft tone close-up of him as a young child, with Jeanne’s hand lightly stroking his innocent face. This constant use of contrasting snippets, back and forth, differs from the linear storyline of Maupassant’s original telling, but works well on the big screen as the sharp juxtaposition in mood and colour makes the audience feel the depth of Jeanne’s current despair even more, especially since many of the flashbacks seem to indicate that Jeanne herself is conjuring those memories.
The majority of scenes consist of medium or close-up shots and profile camera angles, which makes the audience feel like they are in a documentary about 19th century France, witness to the difficulties and struggle of this one woman – bound by societal expectations and protocols at that time. Viewing the film and story with modern eyes, Jeanne would possibly be seen as a weak person, perhaps even deserving of her fate. But, even when Jeanne becomes more unbearable as she ages, we become so involved in her story and her life that we can’t help but root for her. We have seen what she has been through, and we care. We feel her pain.
The film boasts great performances by the entire cast, but Chemla is especially strong as the lead. She deftly captures both the light and dark of her character’s journey with ease, shifting from a giggling girl in love to a depressed and weakened lady, cold and isolated.
Replete with stunning and authentic costume design and settings, A Woman’s Life is told in telling snapshots of Jeanne’s life and is, as a whole, pretty mesmerising. This film won’t please everyone though, as it’s certainly not a feel-good film and nor does provide much closure, but it is nonetheless an utterly moving and engaging adaptation of a French classic, and skilfully portrays the troubles and struggles of an ordinary life. Maupassant would be proud.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10
••••• Screening at the Alliance Française French Film Festival 2017 •••••