A Woman’s Life – Film Review by Aisling Foster
Director: Stephanie Brize.
With Judith Chamla, Jean Pierre Durroussin and Nina Meurisse.
An adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s historic novel, Une Vie, may be uneasy viewing for some, its tale of victimhood appearing in the middle of the film industry’s first major feminist revolution. The woman in the title is Jeanne, an innocent young aristocrat who, in 1819, on being released from her convent boarding school, falls in love and marries Viscount Julien de Lamare, a fortune-hunting bounder. A life of disappointment and disillusion follows, from first learning about sexual intercourse through rape on her marriage night to virtual imprisonment in their empty chateau as her husband hunts fresh pleasures around the Norman countryside.
A glimmer of revolt appears when Rosalie, Jeanne’s maid, falls pregnant. The two women have been friends since childhood and Jeanne resists all Julien’s attempts to throw their servant out, insisting that the child be safely delivered and brought up within the household. Later however, when Jeanne finds her husband in bed with the maid, Rosalie is paid off and Jeanne’s silly parents bring in an old Abbot to wring pledges of undying love from the faithless Julien.
Thus, in their brief period of reconciliation, a child is conceived, a boy on whom the isolated mother will pour unrequited love and lose him in her turn. Meanwhile Julien goes back to his old ways and when Jeanne seeks comfort from her confessor the consequences are disastrous.
Despite its stretch of years the film tells this old story of female ignorance and containment with extraordinary economy. Time is chopped backwards and forwards, long scenes short on dialogue are intercut with brief, sometimes repeated moments like sudden spasms of memory. Apart from a sparsely attended funeral, most of the action happens around the remote coastal chateau. Characters age hardly at all while the span of years is marked by changes in weather and nature. Spring and summer return bright and promising as the women’s sprigged muslin dresses, but by autumn the hem of Jeanne’s woollen cloak weighs heavy with mud before winter gales and weeping skies lock her back indoors.
For all that sadness, the film bows out on a surprisingly optimistic note – a feminist one. Whether or not it was de Maupassant’s original idea hardly matters, but I got up from my seat remembering the conclusion of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse: “Man hands on misery to man/ It deepens like a coastal shelf/Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself”.