A Woman’s Life

French director Stéphane Brizé (The Measure of A Man and Not Here To Be Loved) brings to the screen an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s late 19th-century novel Une Vie, which tells the story of Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla), a French woman whose life, from the moment she marries Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), seems to veer between disappointing and catastrophic. While her future looks invariably uncertain, the cause of her plight is much clearer; the men around her, whether that be Julien or her son Paul (Finnegan Oldfield), are inevitably responsible for much of her distress. The actions of the men around her make her angry and upset, and rightfully so, and yet throughout the film it is Jeanne who is made to feel responsible for the damage that is done to herself, her family and the wider community by events that occur.

It is difficult to watch the film outside of the context of the current social and political paradigm. Victim blaming, a notion at the forefront of our minds, is at the centre of Jeanne’s interactions with the men around her. After Julien commits a particularly egregious act of betrayal, Jeanne is coerced into forgiving him by her mother and by the priest, who is concerned about how it will look if he fails to resolve the family crisis. Later, Jeanne attempts to keep out of the affairs of another couple who live in the same region, and in doing so is made to feel like the ultimate perpetrator of the situation by another priest, who tells her ‘God detests sins of the flesh but even more so he detests lies.’ She is repeatedly told what she owes—to herself, to her husband, to her son, to God—but there is never a mention of what is owed to her. And so, Brizé depicts the depressing reality of being a woman in 19th-century France. Jeanne is trapped within the machinations of society, unable to solve problems thats are not of her own doing but which threaten the nature of her existence. In this hopelessness, there is an element of the Romanian New Wave about Brizé’s film; that sense of despair and isolation in the face of a system so opaque as to be impenetrable pervades through every moment of Jeanne’s life.

However, while the film is evocative and powerful, it lacks the relatability that the films of the Romanian New Wave possess. Whereas Brizé’s previous films have been concerned with the lives of ordinary, working people, A Woman’s Life instead focuses on Jeanne, a member of France’s upper class, and this makes the story of her woes somewhat less impactful. It is difficult to feel sorry and aggrieved for someone who is living in a large house in the countryside, owns a great number of farms and has servants who wait on her every need right until the very end. While the brilliance of Chemla’s nuanced and restrained performance, which is matched by the stillness of Antoine Héberlé’s cinematography (reminiscent of Jonathan Ricquebourg’s work on The Death of Louis XIV), did at times cause a lump to appear in my throat at the unmerited suffering that is cast upon her by the men around her, there is not enough in the story or the direction to pull the film out of the realms of champagne feminism and make it something truly relatable.

The final tableau of a beautiful baby girl, the daughter of Paul, held in the arms of her grandmother Jeanne, draws a line between the two. The sad reality is presented that while she looks in that moment like a cherubim sent from heaven, the baby girl will struggle through the same world that the woman in whose arms she sleeps has struggled through for the whole of her adult life.

★★★

Tim Abrams

In cinemas from 12 January 2018.

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