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Review: Stéphane Brizé's 19th century drama ‘A Woman’s Life’ spins a wise, wrenching tragedy

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Judith Chemla in the film “A Woman’s Life.”
(Kino Lorber)
Film Critic

Guy de Maupassant’s first novel, about a 19th century French noblewoman named Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds, was published under the title “Une Vie,” which translates simply as “A Life.” Stéphane Brizé’s piercingly sad and wise film adaptation bears the slightly embellished English-language title “A Woman’s Life” — a nice bookend to Brizé’s previous film, “The Measure of a Man,” and a moniker that would seem to invite a feminist reading.

If so, the invitation feels both apt and slightly misleading. Jeanne — played to quietly heartbreaking perfection by Judith Chemla — belongs to a venerable literary and cinematic tradition, a sisterhood of fictional heroines forever struggling with the demands and deprivations of a man’s world. But Brizé knows that for his story to resonate, the specific must trump the universal at every turn. We warm to Jeanne’s plight not because it is so relatable or familiar, but rather because every turn feels so vivid and so enveloping.

“Life is never as good or as bad as you think,” a character notes at a key moment, and “A Woman’s Life” seems to have absorbed this truth into every frame. The opening moments are suffused with sunshine and bliss as Jeanne, having returned home from convent school, settles back in with her loving parents, a baron (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and a baroness (Yolande Moreau) who own several farms near the Normandy coast. Her parents are idealistic enough, and their estate secure enough, that they permit her to marry a handsome viscount named Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), even though his family is considerably less wealthy than her own.

It turns out to be a calamitously poor match, as Julien is both stingy and chronically unfaithful. But even here, “A Woman’s Life” resists clear arcs and easy judgments. A close-up of Jeanne’s face during her painful deflowering by her husband is soon followed, and complicated, by a scene of genuine marital intimacy as they enjoy an afternoon overlooking the sea.

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For Jeanne, the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape becomes a profound source of sustainment and rejuvenation. Brizé returns to the outdoors again and again, most tenderly with an image of Jeanne working in the garden alongside her father, the bottom of her long dress smudged with water and dust. (The rough-hewn practicality of the movie’s period design is one of its subtlest achievements.)

These moments are more than mere flashbacks — and a few of them, showing Jeanne in her gloomier, less idyllic moments, are actually flash-forwards. For all the modesty of Brizé’s methods, I can’t recall the last picture that manipulated time with such deft, understated sophistication. In “A Woman’s Life,” a single cut can span days, weeks and even years. Anne Klotz’s brilliant, intuitive editing teaches us to see the film, not unlike life itself, as a series of discrete, self-contained moments that are nonetheless part of a long and never-ending stream of incident.

The second half of “A Woman’s Life” plunges Jeanne and what remains of her family into long-term chaos. Years pass, losses accumulate, and the anguish that Jeanne suffered at the hands of her husband is in some ways doubled by her distant, irresponsible son, Paul (played as an adult by Finnegan Oldfield). Poverty becomes as cruel and unyielding a master as it was in “The Measure of the Man,” a contemporary tragedy that echoes this period piece in its unblinking sidelong view of everyday life.

One notable difference: Every shot in “A Woman’s Life” is composed (by the cinematographer Antoine Héberlé) in the nearly square academy aspect ratio, a choice that has the effect of emphasizing Jeanne’s physical and psychological confinement, but also her relative freedom of movement within the frame. This paradox is reflected in Chemla’s performance, whose placid restraint belies the deep, conflicted emotions churning beneath the surface.

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Jeanne is what a frustrated viewer might deem a “passive heroine,” a character to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen. But Brizé’s film reveals the hollowness behind such Hollywood-conditioned assumptions. Riveting in its slow and steady accretion of details, its penetrating and richly textured gaze, “A Woman’s Life” is a bracing reminder that our experiences are often shaped less by what we achieve than by what we endure.

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‘A Woman’s Life’

Not rated

In French with English subtitles

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena, and Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles

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justin.chang@latimes.com

@JustinCChang


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