AF French Film Festival Review: A Woman’s Life (France/Belgium, 2016) is a melancholy look into a past patriarchal life

A dark, moving yet warming adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s classic novel Une vie is eloquently created in to a period arthouse picture by director Stéphane Brizé (The Measure of a Man), as a young woman comes to grasp the turmoil that unfolds around her in 19th-century France.

The aesthetic of the film is created perfectly by Antoine Héberlé, using the coveted Academy ratio in an attempt to create a both a warm to dreary, cold atmosphere as Jeanne’s (Judith Chemla) story develops over 27 years from one of innocence to deprivation and loss. From living a simple life as a young daughter of a Baron, she marries the wealthy Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud) and settles into her new aristocratic life, bearing a son, until scandal and tragedy repeatedly strike.

By far a standout of the film is Judith Chemla (Camille Rewinds), who although aided by costumes changes and makeup to age, is able to do it so beautifully just from her own acting. Ageing throughout all aspects of her life in almost three decades is visually striking as Chemla alters her voice, facial expressions and movements as Jeanne’s pain is visible throughout the film.

One interesting directorial choice by Brizé was to tell the story in a non-linear timeline, rather scenes are almost akin to small fragments pieced together. Although this was convoluted at times, it created a nuanced story separate from the start and end point of Jeanne’s life itself. Another great choice was how the film introduced and dealt with the suicide and murder of two main characters in an incredibly haunting but still artistic manner.

Although the film is clearly attempting to achieve meaning aside from the prominence of the acting and writing itself, this made the film move slow at times, leaving it hard to follow. The countless visual cues were jarring and although the message behind the film remains the same as it was in the novel – titled simply “A Life” in French – is that life is never as good or bad as expected. This simple message felt lost in the midst of creating a melancholy atmosphere for the remainder of the film.

Overall, A Woman’s Life demonstrates both the harsh reality, particularly in a patriarchal manner in 1800’s France and how this affected the resilience of one woman in Brizé‘s artistic, moving and heartbreaking way.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

A Woman’s Life is screening as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival throughout March and April. More information is available here.

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