By Nick Pinkerton
A Woman’s Life
Dir. Stéphane Brizé, France, Kino Lorber
An upper-crust costume drama without the courtly trappings or whalebone stiffness, A Woman’s Life has nary a tripod shot in sight, and moves along with a disconcerting, lurching motion. Presiding over such decisions is 50-year-old Frenchman Stéphane Brizé, whose reputation grew with a trio of collaborations with the actor Vincent Lindon: 2009’s Mademoiselle Chambon, 2012’s A Few Hours of Spring, and The Measure of a Man, which competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2015 and earned Lindon best actor. Perhaps the English-language title of his latest was chosen to recall that last film—in French it’s simply a gendered Une Vie, the title of an 1883 novel by Guy de Maupassant. This was the first long-form work by the author, better known for his short fiction, which has proven malleable material for more than a few filmmakers; his first published story, the 1880 “Boule de Suif,” has a measure of extra-literary fame thanks to providing the basic ingredients for both Kenji Mizoguchi’s Oyuki the Virgin and John Ford’s Stagecoach.
Whereas Mizoguchi and Ford took considerable liberties in adapting their source material to the new cultural contexts of, respectively, Shogunate Japan and the American southwest of 1880, Brizé has the convenience of staying close to home. The film spans nearly 30 years in 19th-century France, beginning just after the conclusion of the Napoleonic era. Its action is restricted to a handful of estates and farmsteads in Normandy, the territory that makes up most of the known world of the Baroness Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds, to whose perspective the film is most closely wed. Judith Chemla, around 30 at the time of the film’s shoot, plays the Baroness from young adulthood into middle age. She is in nearly every scene of the film, which appears as a procession of fragmentary scenes and glancing impressions, not always strictly chronological.
A woman’s life in these years, if the events in Brizé’s film are to be taken as representative sample, was nothing if not a vale of tears. When the Baroness first appears fresh from the convent school, she is brimming with girlish laughter and lively curiosity, but once we’ve arrived at the film’s close these attributes have been drained away completely. As if to eliminate any doubt of the hardships ahead, even in the film’s halcyon early chapters Brizé offers images of a weathered figure in a black cowl wandering sodden and indifferent through an autumn rainfall—the Baroness, stripped of all but her title, her fate visible as though in a moment of clairvoyance.
We glimpse the significant figures of the young Baroness’s parochial world without fanfare: her parents (Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Yolande Moreau); her maid and the companion of her untroubled childhood, Rosalie (Nina Meurisse); and the Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), a dashing young man of high birth and piddling incomes, his wastrel father having squandered the family fortune some years ago. In time the Baroness will be betrayed, disappointed, or abandoned by each—if abandoned only in death, or betrayed only posthumously by a packet of telltale letters, a favorite Maupassant device. This leaves her to unload the whole of her emotional resources to her adult son, Paul (Finnegan Oldfield). This coddling has very little use, for Paul has inherited his paternal grandfather’s gift for ruinous fecklessness, burning through generations of accumulated wealth in what he describes in his letters back home as a variety of ill-advised business ventures—though the truth is invisible to the Baroness and ourselves. Come the movie’s final act, Paul has disappeared abroad, his relationship with his depleted mother reduced to wholly epistolary terms, as he tries to wring a few more francs out of her.
By this point the destitute Baroness is living off the indulgence of Rosalie, who is inspired to take care of her old friend by some combination of rankling guilt and residual affection, without the assistance of which she would be impossible to forebear. Half mad with grief, the Baroness has become a miserable, suspicious creature, rummaging through her benefactor’s belongings in search of the money that she herself allowed to be frittered away, which she’s convinced is being kept from her and her precious son.
This pathetic, broken woman is the wraithlike Baroness, whom we received premonitions of earlier in the film, one of the several occasions in which the movie’s timeline is shuffled about. Elsewhere, after conjugal happiness has faded from the marriage, a chilly domestic dinner table scene is followed by a glimpse of what appears to be remembered bliss. Working with editor Anne Klotz, a collaborator for 20 years, Brizé is particularly interested in folding scenes into one another rather than clearly demarcating in and out points—audio from a preceding scene will frequently bleed into or hang over the visuals of the one following, and the pairing of scenes seems to have been chosen for jarring juxtaposition.
One supposes that these little collisions, letting past, present, and future jostle against one another in the narrative timeline, is intended to inject the bitter into the sweet, the sweet into the bitter. Unfortunately, Brizé tends to visualize both sorrow and joy in clichéd terms—either wallowing in dejection or the vapid happiness of several sylvan romps, picturesquely sun-dappled as shot by cinematographer Antoine Héberlé, working here in the recently resurgent Academy ratio. While cutting the Baroness’s life story into thin slices, Brizé insists that each individual vignette has an easily apprehensible emotional coloring—our heroine sighing into her needlepoint as she watches her husband ride off to the hunt, for example—and so for all of the attempt to create a free flow between scenes, they seem strangely curt, sealed off, self-explanatory, and self-contained.
Only rarely does the elliptical treatment succeed in creating a sense that life has continued unabated while we’re not privileged to watch—one moment that defies this in its unexpectedness is when the very young Paul is being returned to classes at his boarding school, raging against the presiding priest as his mother beseeches in horror. This jarring emotional outburst is something of an anomaly in A Woman’s Life, which prefers to maneuver around the sticky bits; when the Baroness learns of the first of her husband’s infidelities, the confrontation is eschewed for a hard cut of her running barefoot, sobbing, across the ground. Later, when the Viscount’s wandering eye results in a double murder and suicide, this crime of passion is seen only in its aftermath.
More than half a century ago, the French New Wavers tried and condemned the Tradition of Quality in French cinema for crimes of airless, risk-averse, studio-bound craftsmanship. Today, A Woman’s Life exemplifies the festival-hopping, Euro-pudding 21st-century equivalent, defined by a blind obeisance to its own template of stylistic choices—one generation’s liberated cinema now degraded to a stereotyped, pre-chewed naturalism. Brizé has made the sort of film that wins plaudits for preferring the “modest detail” to the “grand gesture,” to borrow from one trade paper review—a formula, replete with its quiet reverence of that “modest detail” that I’ve seen repeated at least several hundred thousand times since I first started making a practice of reading film criticism. Less often does one read why this is necessarily to be preferred, for such avoidance of the “grand gesture” can also be tantamount to a cop-out. And coming so close on the heels of Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion and Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship, two films that revivify the period piece and prioritize the interpretive freedom of page-to-screen adaptation, the dour A Woman’s Life looks like exactly that—hidebound even in its unorthodoxies.