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Film review: A Woman’s Life

3 January 2018 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

The last line of Brizé’s film, ‘Life is never as good or as bad as you think’, is extraordinarily effective. The events we have seen are transformed by it, augmenting the tragedy that has pervaded the film thus far. These lines shape our entire experience of watching this beautiful historical drama, troubling not only the life of the main character, but also how it is we respond to what we have just seen.



A Woman’s Life plots the life of a young woman Jeanne du Perthuis des Vauds, from her adolescence until she is in her late forties. Through this narrative, she transforms from an optimistic and relaxed young woman, to a gaunt and anxious shell of her former self. Life for a woman in 19th century Normandy is not kind; her husband turns out to be a serial philanderer and rapist, getting her nursemaid and companion Rosalie pregnant, and having an affair with her closest friend; she is oppressed by the rules of a stringent religion, by priests who urge her to forgive her husband; and by her son whose entitlement and demands drive her to despair.  But the film is also full of tender moments, flashbacks to happy times under golden sunshine. It is a complex film that does not allow for an easy response; instead, viewers must allow the story to form piecemeal, slowly and surely at its own pace.

The film is an adaptation of a novel of the same name, by writer Guy de Maupassant. Though Maupassant died at 42, he produced an astonishing amount of work in this short time. Une Vie was his first novel, published in 1883, when Maupassant was 33 years old. It has previously been adapted by in 1958 as One Life. As Richard Brody writes in The New Yorker, Maupassant’s writing has spawned several adaptations across genre, including Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936) and John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).

Though Brizé’s adaption sets it in its historical period, it is not a simple historical adaptation, the kind we might be used to seeing in famous film versions of Jane Austen novels. Brizé has inventively adapted the novel, not as a chronological story, but through memory. This means that the film is an impressionistic rendering of an individual life, firmly situating it through the perspective of Jeanne. The film opens on a series of domestic scenes; Jeanne playing checkers with her mother and father, or gardening in the sunshine. In these scenes, Jeanne is relaxed, untroubled by anything other than the activity at hand and subsumed in the intimacy of family life. Throughout the course of this film, we are transported back in time to these scenes, or propelled into the future through scenes that repeat, returning her to those moments of comfort and security.   When the film cuts to Jeanne looking older, sitting alone in a dark and barren field, the sudden switch is abrupt; we as the audience have to get used to the sudden jump in time, to the particular rhythms of the film. These scenes punctuate the film, showing us her past, but our future. Through this structure, the events of her life unfold.

Revelations occur throughout the film; our understanding is suddenly transformed by a small detail, so we have to re-think our orientation within the narrative.  This is found for example in the film’s treatment of letters: Jeanne’s beloved mother reads and re-reads letters from her past, something that is apparently a quirk of hers, an innocent enjoyment of reminiscence. Later in the film however, these letters are revealed to contain a secret that transforms how Jeanne sees her whole family dynamic. This prompts her to say at one point, ‘everybody lies’, a moment in which she acknowledges the devastation of her innocence, but perhaps also a world-view that was never sustainable.

Though the optimism of Jeanne’s youth gives way to disappointment and bitterness, the film is not despairing or unendingly bleak. It is instead a way of reassessing the way that we think of the events of our life; whilst we may experience hardship, we cannot allow it to define us.  In the last line of the film, Brizé asserts a form of hopefulness, which comes without judgement, without measurements of success or failure, but through an acceptance of the implicit difficulties of living.
 
A Woman’s Life is released in UK cinemas 12 January.


 
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