Like a dancer dodging raindrops Stephane Brize paints beauty between breaks in the cloud, shining light on feminine empowerment in the masterful A Woman’s Life.
Adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s novel A Woman’s Life is an exploration of feminine experience in nineteenth century France. Anchored by a mesmeric performance from Judith Chemla as Jeanne, this fragmented character study is given breadth and resonance through a variety of cinematic techniques. Director and co-writer Stephane Brize uses a varying palette and differing visual hues to communicate Jeanne’s fluctuating fortunes over decades of time.
Brize constructs narrative through flashbacks, flash forwards and silent images in conjunction with musical cues to imply an allegorical subtext. What this approach produces is an intensely isolating viewing experience which draws the audience in whilst adding an additional dream like quality. Chemla is at once innocent and dour in single moments, as Brize plays on memory, time and place to imply a tenuous connection for both character and audience with reality.
Her nemesis within this classical piece is Swann Arlaud as Jeanne’s lascivious suitor, husband and philander Viscount Julien de Lamare. A more underhanded study in womanising miserly repulsion you are unlikely to see this year. Lamare is both overbearing, wet, money grabbing and a bully whilst using his title and connections to hold Jeanne’s family to ransom. Her innocence as exemplified through Brize’s sun drappled courtship visuals early on, only makes the end result of their connection more disturbing. This faithful adaptation is also bolstered by Nina Meurisse as friend, house maid and confidante Rosalie. Pictured in flashback, missing for large chunks of the story only to return, her understated support of Chemla is equal to Arlaud in its impact. Coupled with the musical score from Olivier Baumont, A Woman’s Life quickly coalesces into an exquisite nineteenth century character study, at once alluring yet dangerously demeaning.
Some might claim Brize’s film is a contradiction being both uplifting yet bluntly realistic in its depiction of female life, but for me it moves beyond simple categorisation. Period dramas of the Merchant Ivory ilk are a million miles away from this caustically brutal interpretation, which balances tone yet still delivers a film of wistful elegance. Judith Chemla gives her Jeanne so many different layers, projecting them with such singularity that the film rises and sets on the subtlest of skills. Bring that together with cinematographer Antoine Heberle and A Woman’s Life becomes nothing short of masterful, both in its visually melancholy mood swings and focus on female perspective. Like a dancer dodging raindrops Stephane Brize paints beauty between breaks in the cloud, shining light on feminine empowerment. Which leaves us open for introspection, after thought and quiet contemplation in those final moments.