Don’t be dissuaded by the title. “A Woman’s Life” is about a woman, but it is really about life and how idealistic youthful expectations are slowly stripped away by reality. For those caught up in the Disney princess happily-ever-afters, this tale comes as a brisk and cold gradual misting that becomes a brutally cold bath.
The movie is based on Guy de Maupassant’s “Une vie” or “L’Humble Vérité.” In 1958, Alexandre Astruc directed a French movie, “One Life” (“Une vie”) based on the novel. The original French is only “A Life” or “The Humble Truth.” Adding woman clarifies the gender of the protagonist, but diverts from the original focus. Maupassant is best known in the United States for his 1884 short story, “The Necklace,” (La Parure).
The woman of the title, Jeanne, begins the movie as a young woman of 16. She’s been raised and educated in a convent. The eligible men of her class will not have been so sheltered from the world. That’s unfortunate.
Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla) isn’t exactly a woman of leisure, carefully coiffed and coddled. At home, she helps her parents with the garden of their chateau. In voice over, she wonders, “What good are the flowers if the fruit doesn’t ripen?” The darkness of the movies content is suggested the declaration that “the convention of nature and God by fatal prescription” is life.
When a young nobleman moves nearby, the local cleric introduces him to Jeanne’s family. Welcomed into their home for a meal, Jeanne’s parents, Baron Simon-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Baronne Adélaïde (Yolande Moreau), try to decipher his lineage. His background includes an aristocrat who hanged himself. These aristocrats are not a happy bunch. The problems her parents note won’t be unfamiliar to any fan of Downton Abbey. The young man,Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud) , has title, but his income is low and he was forced to sell his chateau to pay his father’s gambling debts. He’s not only a penniless aristocrat, but his ancestral home is gone.
For those unfamiliar with the hierarchy of aristocracy, an emperor tops king or queen. Princes and princesses are below kings and queens. Then it is duke/duchess, marquess/marchioness, earl (English)/countess, viscount/viscountess and then baron/baroness. A viscount is a step up the antiquated ladder of aristocracy.
The young Jeanne is thus an attractive solution to his situation, and he elevates her status when they marry. Jeanne quickly learns that he can be insensitive. He is boorishly unsympathetic to her discomfort on their wedding night. His coldness extends to the very temperature of their home. He demands she not wastefully burn wood to keep the rooms warm or use candles to light the darkened rooms. He might be away elsewhere–keeping company with the Count and Countess of Fourville, and leave Jeanne alone, but she must survive in cold, dark rooms and simply wear warmer clothes. Gradually, the movie divides her life into the pastel colors of sunny days of the past in flashbacks and the cold, dark days of the present.
Julien soon deprives her of her female friendships. Since childhood, Jeanne has confided in her maid Rosalie (Nina Meurisse), but Rosalie has become strangely silent. Soon Jeanne realizes Rosalie is pregnant and unmarried. Julien argues to send her away; Jeanne wishes for her to remain and to care for both Rosalie and her child.
Soon enough we learn who the father of Rosalie’s child is and it’s not good news for Jeanne. Abbé Picot (Olivier Perrier) helps Jeanne and her parents with this situation. With Rosalie sent away, Jeanne finds a friend in the Countess de Fourville, Gilberte (Clotilde Hesme). Julien and Georges, the husband (Alain Beigel) of Gilberte, are hunting buddies.
Jeanne finds love letters between Julien and Gilbert. She confides with Abbé Tolbiac (Father François-Xavier Ledoux) who tells her she must tell the count, “by denying Count Fourville the truth you’re denying God the truth.”
While the truth might set one free, it can do other things. And when the truth is finally revealed some souls are set free from their mortal cells, but Jeanne isn’t quite free. She is a widow haunted by death and with the responsibility of raising a son, Paul (Henri Hucheloup at five, Rémi Bontemps at 12 and finally Finnegan Oldfield at 20). Paul, unfortunately, turns out to be much like his father and perhaps the gambling grandfather we never meet. That dooms Jeanne. He writes to her for money, and hs please sound like emotional blackmail: “I’ll blow my brains away rather than survive this disgrace.”
Jeanne’s one love becomes her burden, a distant voice that never gives her love or protection. Between Paul and some misfortune, Jeanne’s financial holdings become diminished. Still, she believes, “When doubts abound and all is bleak, in the soul, something’s glimmering.” We are told there is “a patch of blue sky and hope in one’s heart” but that hope isn’t clear until the end of the movie.
If there is a moral to this tale, then it is the karmic cycle where good and bad deeds revisit one when one least expects it. Far from the fantasy of fairy tales this look at an aristocratic life by director Stéphane Brizé (co-written with Florence Vignon) is an atmospheric look at the hardships of aristocrats as their way of life was slowly fading away. Yet in the end, “life is never as good or as bad as you think.”
Chemla was nominated for a Best Actress César and Madeline Fontaine was nominated for Best Costume Design. The film won Prix Louis Delluc for Best Film and an FIPRESCI Award at the Venice Film Festival for Best Film. In French with English subtitles.