Saturday 13 January 2018


Based on Guy de Maupassant's novel and directed by Stephane Brize, A Woman's Life sees Judith Chelma's 19th Century noblewoman Jeanne spending many years dealing with a number of trials and hardships that befall her and her family.

There's a great anecdote that de Maupassant would often eat at the restaurant at the base of the Eiffel Tower, not because he liked it there, but rather because it was the one place in the city where he wouldn't have to look at the imposing structure he so despised. If true, that's an amusing story about a man with a clear sense of humour about life's many hills to climb. Which is why it's a shame that Une Vie (A Woman's Life), although pretty to look at with a fine attention to period detail, is such a dry, humourless affair. It's a bit like finding yourself trapped inside an elegant French armoire; it certainly looks nice, but it soon becomes stuffy and suffocating.

That's not to say there aren't elements of joy on show, but these invariably lead to deeper disappointments, often thanks to the antics of Jeanne's Viscount husband Julien (Swann Artaud). When his adulterous actions begin to have repercussions, the pressure is put on Jeanne to offer forgiveness, rather than on him to change. T here's a troubling, ominous darkness to be read that the literal translation from the original text, A Life, was instead interpreted as the more specific A Woman's Life. Yes, the main character as you would expect in this case is a woman, but there's an almost definitive aspect to it, as if to act as a warning that this is the best women could expect from marriage and motherhood. That perhaps may have been the case for many women in the 19th century, and for the most part the film operates as a traditional period drama that could have been made at any point in the last fifty years (shot in the boxy Academy ratio but with some abrupt editing choices that reveal its modernity), is able to deliver these themes in a way that will speak to a more gender role conscious audience fearful of such trappings.

At its best, A Woman's Life is a misery memoir that wouldn't be out of place alongside British social realism, except with period drama details. Jeanne's life of wealth and privilege should be enviable, but it's a life of love, passion and ultimately disappointment. It is a tale of immense hardship and tough times that the lead character is forced to endure, that only thanks to the performance of Chelma doesn't become too draining an experience.


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