A Woman’s Life, directed by Stéphane Brizé, is a film based on the 1883 novel of the same name by Guy de Maupassant. It spans the adult life of an upper-class French woman, Jeanne, from returning from school-age to becoming a grandparent. This film has been lauded ‘tearing up the rulebook’ compared to the stereotypical period drama – but that is a touch too far. There is nothing radical here which makes it unique amongst the genre.
That said, there is plenty to enjoy in this film. The director has a way with sound that feels both atmospheric and very real; the crackle of the fire, the rain outside, the knives and forks at dinner as the characters sit in silence. Jeanne’s visceral love of nature is made apparent – most scenes take place outside – as well as her interior and spiritual life beyond specific events or relationships. The use of flashback is almost bittersweet at times, suggesting Jeanne’s memories and experiences.
The lingering shots of Jeanne’s bosom let it down, along with the painful depiction of Jeanne losing her virginity, which reinforces rape culture unnecessarily. This was disappointing after scenes which were both romantic and sensual. For example, there is a moment where you can sense the attraction Jeanne has for her fiancée Julian, while they are on a boat, side by side, almost touching but not quite. But Julian is a brute, because after all, that’s what men are in this tired vision of marriage Brizé has created.
Jeanne only comes to life with her relationship with her son, and it is somewhat new to see a woman of that period imparting knowledge to her male child, with of all things, a telescope. We also see the skill of gardening passed down from her father, and from Jeanne to her son, paying no attention to gender role. This quiet refutation of stereotypes was perhaps the most realistic and touching aspect of all.
Without giving too much away plot-wise, this film is a study in human weaknesses and how one woman tries to attempt to deal with these weaknesses, both in herself and in her loved ones. Brizé deals with this topic seriously, but perhaps that’s the problem – this film is too serious without being particularly complex. There are just too many long scenes solely consisting of Jeanne sitting outside, doing nothing much else other than thinking. This film needed a touch more energy and humour to truly bring an entire life to the screen. There are instead ridiculous moments of melodrama (presumably from the novel) which felt clumsy although the director seems to have done his best to handle these moments with care.
Overall this film is worth watching if you are a fan of thoughtful period dramas, however if you really are looking for something different there is nothing truly new here. Perhaps, ultimately, if we want films that tell new and interesting truths about women’s lives; women should be directing them.
Review by T.S.J. Harling
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