French films, by their very definition, tend to be different. Often they pick up in the middle of a life, carry us through a few incidents and then finish. Une Vie or A Woman’s Life, is rather different, based on a short novel by Guy de Maupassant, one would have thought the ideal author for a French filmmaker to use because of his linear, consecutive structure, this film chops and changes from the present, the future and the past. And if that sounds confusing, it was.
The Director, Stéphane Brizé, has been shown at, at least, two previous London Film Festivals but this film is a departure from his normal oeuvre. Partly because it is a film set in the nineteenth century, though at the Q&A both he and the LFF introducer insisted that it was like a modern day film (which, in my view, did it no great service).
Set in Normandy, and filmed there over three seasons, summer, autumn and winter, it tells the story of a young woman, Jeanne who is persuaded to marry Paul – for quite what reason it was hard to tell, save that he was a viscount, since she was rich and he was impoverished. Paul is serially unfaithful with disastrous consequences for Jeanne and for himself.
Jeanne maintains throughout both a childish and stubborn attitude, first towards her husband and then towards their son, Pierre. All the men in this film let her down, even her father; her husband, obviously, but also the local priest and then his much younger successor, her lawyer and finally her son.
The women, especially those complicit in her husband’s infidelity, excluding her maid, seem to support her; however, on her mother’s death, she finds letters from a lover with explicit references to their infidelity, so Jeanne finds herself surrounded by lies and deceptions, which on account of her childish attitude to life, she finds monstrous and unbearable.
Judith Chemla plays Jeanne, I suspect she is going to be seen very much more in the future, she has an indefinable quality of character.
This would be a more moving film is it has not been so distracting; the sudden switches in time (past, present and future) each with its accompanying soundtrack, were difficult to absorb and to follow. There were moments of sunny happiness – mostly things she was remembering with the golden glow of unreal nostalgia – while at the same time she was looking drearily through the grey, rainy window of a truly lovely French chateau somewhere in the Normandy peninsular. These might be cut in with her as a much older and sadder woman, sitting huddled by a roadside in the pouring rain.
Films have to do this a bit, since in two hours to tell a story of twenty years there must be elisions, this was clear. Where it fell away for me, was the insistent musical background which was telling us what to feel and more or less where we were (past, present and future) but in a rather banal manner. Some of the music was written by a contemporary composer, some was by Jacques Duphly, a French harpsichordist and composer 1715 to 1789 which seems perverse, since this was the life, harsh and woeful as it was, of a woman in the nineteenth century.
You might like this film, I have liked previous ones better, especially The Measure of a Man.