★★★★ A Woman’s Life
A lyrical if slightly bewildering viewing experience.
A Woman’s Life (Un Vie) is adapted by Florence Vignon and director Stéphane Brizé from the Guy de Maupassant novel and at first glance looks to be a fairly standard literary fare. Set in the early to mid 1800s, it closely follows French aristocrat Jeanne (Judith Chemla) from the day she returns to the rural family seat after years away at a strict convent boarding school. The church casts a long shadow over Jeanne’s life, undermining every human connection she makes as an adult in a world bereft of her natural piety. Her unquestioning faith in God and, to a lesser degree, the godliness of others of her class, only deepens through time and leaves her ill-equipped to withstand the realities of human venality. Jeanne’s reliance on the local priest to mediate private conflict and dictate her decisions continually belies both her judgement and her compassion. She is proven right in the most brutal of offscreen denouements- yet that moment is never explored or revisited. Put from her mind and so from our view. Brizé seems uninterested in commenting on or exploring this aspect of the society, merely presenting it as a passing observation. This is initially frustrating, though eventually his intentions become more clear.
The story itself is unremarkable in its mundane playing out of adultery, betrayal, male inadequacy and financial mismanagement; The inexorable decline of landed gentry that permeated Europe in the 19th Century and the lack of agency (and consequently responsibility when the men in their life fail) for the wealthy women of the era. What is remarkable about Brizé’s paean is his deliberate and emphatic dwelling on the incidental moments, almost to the exclusion of major life events. Time and again throughout the two hour run time he skims past the big reveals, the moments of high drama and deep emotion, often even vital conversations, to linger on Chemla, compelling as the pliable Jeanne, stranded in an anonymous landscape and never-quite combusting under the force of her turmoil.
Jeanne barely has friends, barely knows the rakish viscount she marries so eagerly, seems only to have true emotional intimacy with her parents, though even this transpires to be superficial, yet she is still hopeful and trustful to the point of reckless obstinacy. We never know why. Little is revealed of Jeanne’s motivations and reasoning and none whatsoever of the supporting cast. It seems to be a story told on the surface, yet Brize’s roving camera, rarely still, pries an almost uncomfortable degree of exposure from Chemla as it keeps tight, scrutinising her face in intrusive close up throughout every experience, backgrounds often entirely out of focus.
The grainy film stock, gold and slate colour pallete and non-linear structure lend the feel not so much of a cinematic experience as that of leafing through a box of unsorted photographs, pulling out fragments of someone else’s visual biography at random till we’ve accumulated, almost inadvertently, a sense of this stranger’s life.
The analogue aesthetic is deepened by a recurring motif of fires roaring and crackling like vinyl, often in the absence of dialogue, and the sound of the wind like static interference outside the windows of Jeanne’s slowly disintegrating ancestral home. The film abruptly shifts from bright to dark, from cacophonous diegetic noise to near- and occasionally actual- silence, from joy to anguish or conflict to placid contemplation, flickering through memories in a way that weaves a sense of Jeanne’s life around the viewer in diaphanous layers, rather than laying a palatable narrative before us on a plate. The most persistent memories asserting themselves repeatedly on the surface.
Brizé has authorial faith in his soft focused, disordered, between-the-lines drama and submitting to that confidence makes for a lyrical if slightly bewildering viewing experience. The only flat note was the brief, incongruous soliloquies in voiceover which may well have lost something in translation. These are overblown and detract from the atmospheric ebb and flow of the film. A Woman’s Life has little original to say, but the beauty is in the sedimentary accumulation of so many moments of intimacy and aftermath, scattered across decades. There is a haunting resonance to the performances and the assured editing stays with you long past the credits.