A Woman's Life

 

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Stéphane Brizé moves out of his comfort zone in adapting a French classic.

 
Woman's Life, A

  

This film concludes with a line of dialogue suggesting that life is never as good or as bad as we think it is. Quite unintentionally this comes across as ironic since the story that we have been following, a 19th century drama based on Guy de Maupassant's first novel Une Vie, is a catalogue of misery.  It tells of Jeanne (Judith Chemla) who is living in Normandy. She marries a nobleman, Julien (Swann Arlaud), who is unfaithful to her, raises a son who, having run up debts, sponges on his mother and eventually realises that in the process the family fortune has been used up.

 

Given the nature of the tale, the film needs two things if the gloomy subject matter is to engage us: storytelling that draws us in and a riveting performance from a lead actress that, through the inner intensity revealed, will make us feel deeply for Jeanne. Sadly, neither quality is present in this unexpected film from the French director Stéphane Brizé who is known to us for such contemporary works as Mademoiselle Chambon (2009) and The Measure of a Man (2015). The latter film with its concentration on everyday life may have seemed like a move in the direction of minimalism, but it did not prepare one for the unorthodox style of this adaptation (its authorship is shared by Brizé himself and his frequent collaborator Florence Vignon).

 

I have not read the novel but understand that Brizé, while true to the original story, has chosen to reject its linear narrative. Instead he gives us a film which keeps jumping forward in time, often leaving us to catch up as best we can with plot developments. That is immensely distracting even if in truth the storyline with its strong anti-clerical sentiments carries relatively few surprises. The background music (some specially composed  but with actual period works heard too) certainly helps to create this past age for us and the actors in support do what can be done with limited roles, but the focus here is very much on Jeanne herself.

 

Given more conventional treatment Judith Chemla might have been aptly cast, but as it is she cannot overcome the disruptions of this narrative style which extend to frequent brief flashbacks that do not always fit in neatly. By comparison the straightforward narrative in René Clement's film version of that equally bleak French classic, Zola's Gervaise (1956), worked far better aided by the exceptional quality of the period recreation and by the spirited performance of Maria Schell even if she missed something of the tragic heroine's vulnerability. But here we watch Chemla distanced by our need to puzzle out what time has passed between episodes and what key events have happened off-screen. Brizé certainly can't be accused of betraying Guy de Maupassant in a bid for popular appeal to suit 21st century taste, but the film's telling of a miserable tale never creates the depth of emotional response that is essential if we are to feel that watching A Woman's Life is truly worthwhile.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Judith Chemla, Swann Arlaud, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau, Nina Meurisse, Olivier Perrier, Clotilde Hesme, Alain Beigel, Finnegan Oldfield, Lucette Beudin.

 

Dir Stéphane Brizé, Pro Miléna Poylo and Gilles Sacuto, Screenplay Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vignon, from the novel Une Vie by Guy de Maupassant, Ph Antoine Héberlé, Pro Des Valérie Saradjian, Ed Anne Klotz, Music Olivier Beaumont, Costumes Madeline Fontaine.

 

TS Productions/France 3 Cinéma/Versus Production/F comme Film/CN5 Productions-Arrow Films.
119 mins. France/Belgium. 2016. Rel: 12 January 2018. Cert. 12A.