Judith Chelma gives an astonishing performance in A Woman’s Life. Based on the novel ‘Une Vie’, by Guy de Maupassant, director Stéphane Brizé manages to capture decades of a woman who is broken and emotionally abused by almost every man in her life.
Chelma, as Jeanne, needs to portray the various stages of her life from late teens to well into her fifties, while also emoting a vast array of feelings with an exceptionally limited script. Brizé focuses on observation and detail, with sun-dappled leaves and small plants blowing in the breeze. A Woman’s Life may be an acquired taste, but its slow, measured pace is hypnotic in its reflective editing and brave performances.
Set in the mid 1800’s, Jeanne has left her convent school and has arrived home to stay with her mother (Yolande Moreau) and father (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). But she is a noblewoman and her parents are the Baron and Baroness Le Perthuis des Vauds. Living in some enormous chateaux in Normandy, her next rite of passage is marriage, and it arrives in the form of Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud). With a tight smile and small eyes, Julien does romance her and their tentative hand-holding soon becomes her wedding night. We see, in the cramp framing and the busy linen, that this night is not only uncomfortable but it hints at Julien’s unsupportive role as a husband. This is followed by a breakdown of Jeanne’s friendship with her closest friend and maid, Rosalie (Nina Meurisse), due to Julien’s unacceptable behaviour. Forgiveness is what she is told she must give.
A Woman’s Life doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of mankind. Jeanne, initially bright and bubbly when she chuckles over pictures from her time in the convent with Rosalie, becomes withdrawn and defeated. It is only through the love and support of others, does she manage to be strong enough to continue. Indeed, the film seems to be comprised of two halves. Her husband and his mistreatment of her and the second half with her son, and the damage he inflicts on his mother. There are long stretches of tranquility and silence. Whether we are with Jeanne and Julien as they climb a large hill, and gaze in awe at the beauty of the land, or as Jeanne sits on a step, damaged and torn by the cruel fate that has been bestowed on her. These moments happen in contemplative silence with only a harpsichord song to transition between scenes at various points.
Rather than structure the film as explicitly in flashback, Stéphane Brizé intercuts between time periods throughout. It is difficult to know whether the romantic moments between Julien and Jeanne that play out are memories of a happier time between the couple or if she did manage to forgive him. There’s an ambiguity in this direction but it makes A Woman’s Life that much more intriguing. Standing, as rain pours down on a darkly dressed woman, becomes a signal to what will come. The colour and patterns of her happy childhood is soon replaced by layered darker tones, signifying how her entire view on life has been spoiled by sadness.
Clearly, A Woman’s Life is a rare piece of cinema that combines hopelessness with peace (and there are few who will enjoy such an experience) but it is undeniable that there is beauty in its direction and overwhelming emotion on display in the story itself.
This was originally published at Culturefly.co.uk in January 2018