Guy de Maupassant is no doubt the master over some of the darkest, most pessimistic stories about human nature. His 1883 novel Une Vie is no different, and has now been brought to startlingly vivid life by multi-award nominee Stephane Brize.
Set in Normandy in 1819, Une Vie (or A Woman’s Life) follows young Jeanne (Judith Chemla) as she returns home to fall madly in love with local Viscount Julien (Swann Arlaud) and marries him without a second thought, ready to start her adult life. Before long though, Julien reveals his true colours and the selfish and unfaithful man he actually is, crushing Jeanne’s innocence and childish illusions of adulthood faster than she ever imagines.
Brize’s adaptation feels perfectly suited for the pessimistic, dark narrative. Unlike most period films, Brize strips Une Vie of any sense of grandeur, opting instead for a more indie, almost handheld camera approach in the way we view these doomed characters. With almost no soundtrack save for a haunting piano refrain, there’s a sense of the naturalism Maupassant so strived for throughout the film, and one feels drawn in by its devotion to realism, such that we practically feel a part of the moment, catching each and every smile and heartbreak. A restricted framing changes our perspective of the film as well, forcing us to feel the full presence of characters as they fill each frame, and easily making each close up that much more impactful.
The melancholia that pervades the film is elegantly captured in the contrasts between Jeanne’s sun dappled flashbacks, silent but awash in golden rays, and her present, blue-grey reality, characterized by storm clouds, darkness and rain. Often, there is a deafening quietude as Jeanne ponders her situation, either sullenly or at a complete loss, and one cannot help but empathize with the girl cruelly forced into adulthood with all its perils. Judith Chemla does a remarkable job of shapeshifting from a light-footed and elegant schoolgirl awash in love to a heavy hearted wife of a philanderer, each reveal leaving her more joyless than the last. With some subtle but effective makeup, Chemla even captures the movements and idiosyncrasies of an older woman as she grows to become a mother and finally, a grandmother seeing traces of madness.
Despite its source material’s age, Une Vie’s central narrative feels stronger than ever in today’s age of toxic white masculinity threatening to destroy the world at every opportunity. Swann Arlaud’s portrayal of the utterly unlikable Julien leaves one feeling completely discomforted at his dalliances and the sociopathic, objectifying way he treats the women around him. There is no sympathy for him as we cut to the reveal of his rape, as we watch him chasing after Jeanne in a gusty forest, she screaming in pure anguish and her life completely crumbling before our very eyes. Julien’s eventual comeuppance is hauntingly powerful, imbuing viewers with a sense of the pyrrhic victory at his inglorious demise as we gaze at his pale, naked corpse. Meanwhile, even Jeanne’s son Paul (Finnegan Oldfield) seems determined to drive her to her grave, who even in his absence, can somehow cause the destruction of her entire estate, defiantly going against his mother’s wishes and running up debts, his father’s son indeed.
Yet, as Jeanne’s best friend and confidant Rosalie (Nina Meurisse) states in the final lines of the film, “Life is never as good or bad as it seems.” As much as Une Vie is about one woman’s suffering and her ideals completely robbed from her with each passing year, one cannot deny the little moments of hope that pepper the film. Perhaps, because of how much pain surrounds her, these fleeting joys feel all the more impactful, and Une Vie ultimately ends up a reminder to look beyond the pessimism, and that amidst all the darkness, life truly is a rollercoaster of ups and downs, and it’s up to each of us to ride through the storms into the light.
A WOMAN’S LIFE is in UK cinemas 12th January