DIR: Stéphane Brizé • WRI Stéphane Brizé Florence Vignon • PRO: Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto • DOP: Antoine Héberlé • ED: Anne Klotz • MUS: Olivier Baumont • DES: Valérie Saradjian • CAST: Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau
A Woman’s Life poses an interesting question: can a film be forgiven for being dreary and plodding if it is trying to accurately depict an existence defined by these adjectives? Directed by Stephane Brize, the movie is an adaption of Guy de Maupassant’s 1883 novel Une Vie. Judith Chemla stars as Jeanne, a young and innocent woman who falls for Julien (rising star Swann Arlaud, The Anarchists). However, our protagonist’s husband is a terror. Not soon after the couple’s marriage, Julian impregnates their maid and after begging for forgiveness for his transgressions, also begins to have an affair with Judith’s best friend.
Brize makes the oppression and lack of agency for women in the 19th century palpable. The movie rarely changes location, with scenes taking place in the same areas of Jeanne’s house again and again – adding to the sense of confinement. An unchanged orchestral accompaniment returns throughout the movie, playing like a chorus of monotonous misery. Brize set the film in the 4:3 Academy Ratio (the same as Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights adaptation), with its square – as opposed to rectangular screen shape – claustrophobically boxing Jeanne into a life of marital servitude and imprisonment. After all, as Brize depicts, this is a time when a priest could come to a wife’s home and request that she not leave her husband, despite his many affairs.
However, these tricks, as evocative as they are, do not engage the viewer or work cinematically. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights aimed for a similarly downtrodden depiction of the 19th century. Yet, that film had a stark but savagely beautiful environment – one which managed to capture the oppressiveness of the period but in a way which felt filmic and memorable. In contrast, Brize’s film just looks dull, like a BBC made-for-TV Victorian novel adaptation. Also, last year’s Lady Macbeth took a similar story of female mistreatment set during the same time but played up its genre elements as a means of mustering excitement. Meanwhile as Brize’s film enters its second half and Jeanne continues to suffer, drained of every penny by her awful son Paul (Finnegan Oldfield, star of the amazing Nocturama), one longs for even a sliver of the edge that Macbeth had. Instead, viewers are treated to another hour of slog.
The performances are lacking. Brize’s previous film The Measure of a Man – a very good drama focusing on economic-recession victims attempting to reintegrate into the workplace – also used static shots and lack of music to capture a feeling of boredom, monotony and restlessness. However, that film had as its lead Vincent Lindon, an actor capable of adding a soul and a beating heart to the most sterile of cinematic environments. On the other hand, Judith Chemla’s performance as the lead in A Woman’s Life does not convey her character’s internal battle to the audience adequately. She begins the film hopeful and throughout the movie – through make-up and slightly greyed hair – becomes increasingly downtrodden. That is all there is to the character and Chemla never gets under Jeanne’s skin, such as why she continues to be a quiet doormat to all the male figures in her life.
A Woman’s Life is frustrating. It’s depressing and lifeless, but perhaps these faults are not only hard-wired into its source but are the reason for its success. That said, without the prose that made de Maupassant’s novel still readable 120 years after its release, Brize struggles to add a pulse to what is essentially a two-hour dirge. How this beat La La Land or Jackie for Best Film at Venice is beyond me.
15A (See IFCO for details)
A Woman’s Life is released 12th January 2018