- A Woman's Life (2018)
Stéphane Brizé employs every detail in his film to develop the storyline and the character arches, adapting prose for the silver screen with a poetic flair that creates a world of visual wonder and breathes new life into Guy de Maupassant’s novel.
When Viscount Julien de Lamare asks for Jeanne’s hand, she’s still an optimistic girl looking into the future that seems as bright as the long walks on the sunny afternoons or family gatherings. But as the dreams of her youth disperse under the weight of the betrayals from the people who are the closest to her, she’s forced to face her disillusionment and sorrow in the world that doesn’t bend to her wishes as easily as we’d expect to. We follow the young aristocrat from the brink of the adolescence into her adult life, taking on a role of quiet observer of her happy moments and tragedies.
The film is lovingly quiet – and it builds its impact on how it combines the silence, an occasional musical cue, and the sounds of the environment as well as the pace. It allows us to watch the events unfold without taking the focus away from its splendid photography, which recalls Vermeer’s paintings in themes and composition. Along with the director of photography Antoine Héberlé, Stéphane Brizé works with long, emotional shots that capitalise on unease and inner torment. They utilise the natural light and shadow perfectly, especially when it comes to the profiles, and the shots in the field, to work with the cosy candlelight which hides a handful of sorrow when the atmosphere calls for it.
The opening scenes catch a very brief glimpse of our main heroine, when her husband-to-be Julien and her parents try to figure out the relationships and connections between them, only to reintroduce us to her properly minutes after. Jeanne sits by the window, gazing into the distance, listening to her parents discussing the man who courts her. The scene in the bedroom, which follows shortly after, also emphasises her discomfort and nervousness: the camera never lets go of her petrified stare, focusing firmly on her face.
It continues to utilise the physical proximity, picking up on our protagonist’s emotions to let go of them, allowing the external voices to chime in and assess her situation; in one of the scenes, the priest persuades her into forgiveness, firmly supported by her parents who try to prevent the scandal. In this very moment, the camera forgets her, focusing on everyone in the room, and we can’t help thinking it reflects her position in this world – she’s present but ruled by everyone else. We’re with the heroine on-and-off as she deals with a palette of emotions, whether observing her deeply in thought or losing her mind; Judith Chemla helps us understand her anguished character transforming from a cheerful adolescent into a grief-stricken woman opposing her environment. Alongside her is Swann Arlaud as Julien, creating a full-bodied character, her love and one of the reasons for her downfall. Yolande Moreau and Jean-Pierre Darroussin also appear on the screen briefly, making distinct marks on the story, along with Finnegan Oldfield as Jeanne’s son.
The director knows that some of the events speak the loudest when they’re left to the spectator’s imagination: he starts with the fight Jeanne and Julien have in the fields, captured in the total darkness, with the wind taking over their voices, following the heroine looking for her husband around the house. The images of Julien and Gilberte coming to the protagonist when she’s about to fall asleep reflect the weight of the message delivered through the grapevine: that thing you heard of, never witnessed, but with such crucial impact on your life. And the sequence with dead bodies hits us with similar impact, telling the story concisely and capitalising on our assumptions. That needs to be said also about handling the timeline: the occasional reminders of Jeanne’s brighter past show what she’s given up while entering her adult life, which let go of the sound completely or substitute it for poetry or letters, provide a perfect counterbalance. “Life is never as good or bad as you thought”, it concludes, and it easily makes the audience succumb to this idea.
It almost makes us think that the English translation of film’s title – A Woman’s Life – would be even punchier if kept closer to the original (Un Vie which stands for A Life). It’s largely shaped by the strong female voice, but it can easily break out of these constraints as a coming-of-age story, a Boyhood quietly reimagined for the 19th century period picture, a tale of disillusionment and continuous fight in the world that isn’t built to embrace anyone throughout their entire journey. And it’s difficult not to compare it to similarly resonant period pictures that allow us to see the world through women’s eyes. From Gone with the Wind that embraced the female friendship and allowed the heroine to meander through the misfortunes in the man’s world, to the recent Terence Davies’s film A Quiet Passion, it finds its feet quickly, joining the thematical field with immaculate attention to detail. It’s closer to the latter, however, in how peacefully it handles the story, allowing the visuals to speak through the poetry of the moment.
A Woman’s Life opens in the UK on the 12th of January 2018.