It’s fair to say Marvel won’t be knocking on Stéphane Brizé’s door any day soon. The master of the social slow-burner, the auteur of the nuance, Brize is more concerned with a glance than a glock. Yet with 2015’s multi-award winning The Measure of a Man, he showed his ability for suspense and self-searching. A Woman’s Life is Brize’s latest feature, a take on the position of a woman’s lot in 19th century French aristocracy, based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant.
Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Chemia) lives a sheltered life with her wealthy land-owning Baron father and mother, whiling away happy hours crocheting, gardening and reading. When handsome suitor Julian de Lamare (Arlaud) comes to visit, she is met with thinly veiled threats from her parents that marriage is expected. Naturally Julian turns out to be a total bastard, impregnating Jeanne’s best friend and maid Rosalie, spending the family fortune, then forcing Jeanne to forgive, as forgiveness is the route to salvation in God’s eyes. That old chestnut. Suffice to say, things don’t get much better for Jeanne as children, family secrets, financial problems and her dear old husband continue to destroy any small scrap of joy left in her endless misery.
There is only so much entertainment that can be extracted from viewing the passive acceptance of utter and relentless despair of a lead character. This is, no doubt, the entire point of the movie; to display the compact life of a 19th century woman living a religiously and socially repressed life. 2 hours of constant misery, however, is tough to take. Even Chemia’s excellent performance can’t pull you through the quagmire of grimness as Brizé spends far too much time concentrating on wistful looks, book reading and fire-stoking. Any empathy for Jeanne is quickly nullified by the tiresome scenes of sluggish daily life. It’s subtlety run amok. He employs an odd editing strategy too; cutting the final moments of any primary scene then visually explaining the finale in future scenes. It works in theory but becomes somewhat aggravating after sitting through the laborious run up to the money shot.
A Woman’s Life is beautifully shot by Antoine Héberlé and the performances from Chemia, Arlaud and Meurisse are all faultless, yet the slow-burning effect is taken to an extreme beyond the ability to truly care about the characters.
Dir: Stéphane Brizé
Scr: Florence Vignon, Stéphane Brizé
Cast: Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau, Swann Arlaud, Nina Meurisse
Prd: Gilles Sacuto, Miléna Poylo
DOP: Antoine Héberlé
Music: Olivier Baumont
Run Time: 119 minutes
A WOMAN’S LIFE is in UK cinemas 12th January 2018