A Woman's Life Review
A Woman's Life (Une vie) is the seventh feature film from French director Stéphane Brizé and details the troubles faced by a woman in the 19th Century, bringing to our attention how far, I believe, we have managed to progress when it comes to rights for women. On paper it sounds like a film set in a place and time so foreign and alien to our own that a 21st century viewer may not be able to connect and empathise with the main character. However, through Brizé's direction and an excellent performance by Judith Chemla, A Woman's Life manages to keep the viewer engaged and invested in the fate of its main character Jeanne.
The film begins with Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chelma) living a pleasant and comfortable life with her parents Baron and Barnoness des Vauds (played respectively by Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Yolande Moreau). Her days are filled with adventures taking place around their Château with her friend Rosalie (Nina Meurisse), who happens to be the family's servant. In a glorious summer, Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud) arrives on the scene who Jeanne falls head-over-heels for and the two begin a relationship which becomes a tense and troubled marriage. Julien reveals his true colours and betrays Jeanne's trust, which results in the exile of her friend Rosalie. Despite Julien's promise that he will change, he still continues his loutish behaviour as he commits another tremendous betrayal of Jeanne. Soon, Jeanne finds herself without a husband and with a newborn son, and slowly her world of luxury begins to crumble until she has nothing left but her determination to survive.
Director Brizé takes on a different and unique approach to adapting Guy de Maupassant's Une vie (L'Humble Vérité) on which the film is based. The film's narrative is told in a non-linear fashion, shown through a series of fragmented scenes and sequences that upon initial viewing don't always make sense, and it is not until we piece together the timeline of the film that we realise how all these pieces connect with one another. The past leading up to the departure of Jeanne's husband is shown in sunshine and warmth, and moments where Jeanne experience's great distress and bouts of depression take place in fall or winter, creating visually a stark contrast. The dream-like approach to the film's mise-en-scène, hand-held camera and tightly shot cinematography, in certain scenes, creates a surreal and abstract atmosphere to film, perhaps representing the process of recalling memories of events that took place years ago.
The human memory is a tricky thing to comprehend and even harder to depict onscreen and yet Brizé superbly captures the trauma of betrayal and rejection by denying us scenes of confrontation and simply showing us the aftermath. Perhaps the most effective example of this is the scene of Jeanne running blindly into the night screaming to be left alone while Julien runs after her. We do not bare witness to Jeanne confronting her husband but jump immediately into the aftermath, which allows the viewer to create the confrontation scene in their own imagination making it far more intriguing into what actually took place to lead to this reaction from Jeanne. Some viewers may find the fragmented approach to storytelling in A Woman's Life distracting and infuriating, but you cannot help but admire the director's bold choice to try something that is different and unconventional.
The film is slow-paced with little "action" taking place. Jeanne can be quite a cold and reserved character, but considering the betrayals she encounters during her life, we can hardly blame her. This can be off putting to some, those who may find her too melodramatic and absent in certain scenes. However, Judith Chemla shines as Jeanne and helps create a lasting and impressionable performance of a woman who is lost and confused in the world. Rather than dwell on victimhood, Chemla decides to embrace the survivalist side of the character and plays her with a reserved upper-class determination. The film is certainly worth a watch for her performance alone, although the supporting cast are also incredibly noteworthy. On a personal note, I would suggest watching the film more than once in order to fully grasp the non-linear narrative, because it is a complicated film which works best upon a second viewing.
This narrative certainly reflects on some of the troubles and ills faced by women prior to the suffragette and feminist movement, and we can be grateful that the lives of women have improved somewhat for women in the West, although we're still striving for a better place in the world. However, we should never forget the harsh realities that women like Jeanne and Rosalie and countless others battled and survived through. This film brings attention to a(nother) period of history where women were treated like second-class citizens and ridiculed by their male peers. Overall, A Woman's Life is a relevant film if we consider the on-going struggles faced by women across the globe, and as we enter 2018 we are beginning to see women find their voice. We should all find inspiration in the character of Jeanne and admire her determination and spirit. The struggle of life, is not yet over for many women.