A Woman's Life (3 stars)

A Woman's Life

Judith Chemla is heartbreaking in Stéphane Brizé's unflinching period drama

Director Stéphane Brizé is best known for a series of collaborations with actor Vincent Lindon exploring masculinity in crisis. 2015's The Measure of a Man earned Lindon the Best Actor prize at Cannes. A Woman's Life is Brizé's first period drama and is equally perceptive and unflinching in its focus on a woman at the mercy of a society that seems determined to crush her spirit.

Adapted from Guy de Maupassant's 1883 novel Une Vie, A Woman's Life is set in early 19th century Normandy and shows clear affinities with the writing and sensibility of Thomas Hardy. Jeanne (Judith Chemla) is a young, convent-educated girl who lives an idyllic existence with her wealthy parents Simon-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Adélaïde (Yolande Moreau). She is also set to marry a handsome nobleman, Julien (Swann Arlaud).

Over the next quarter of a century, all Jeanne's romantic illusions are destroyed. Life is filled with disappointments, infidelity, betrayals and heartaches. Even more horrifying is the way in which she is expected to accept her fate and do her duty. She has no control over a life that gradually steals away all the certainties that she once held dear.

Filmed in a manner determined to subvert the conventions of lavish costume drama, A Woman's Life maintains a tight, claustrophobic focus on characters who are frequently scrutinised in close-up. There is a jittery energy as it skips backwards and forwards through the narrative. Brizé seems to be aiming for an almost documentary-like realism as he captures the tedium and misery of Jeanne's life.

This makes for quite a gruelling, testing drama, that's carried by an impressive, heartfelt performance from Chemla, who confidently runs the gamut from light, carefree youth to the careworn figure of bitterly disillusioned middle age.

Selected release from Fri 12 Jan.

A Woman's Life

  • 3 stars
  • 2016
  • France
  • 1h 59min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Stéphane Brizé
  • Cast: Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau

Jeanne (Chemla) has led an idyllic existence with her parents until she is married to a handsome Viscount and experiences the crushing realities of a woman’s position in 19th century France. Brizé keeps a claustrophobic focus on Jeanne and Chemla gives an impressive, heartfelt performance as a woman becoming more and more…