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IFI French Film Festival 2017 Review - A WOMAN'S LIFE

A WOMAN'S LIFE review
The tragic existence of a noblewoman in 19th century France.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Stephane Brize

Starring: Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau, Swann Arlaud, Finnegan Oldfield



Director Stephane Brize received much deserved attention for last year's The Measure of a Man, an honest and realistic look at the struggles of losing your job late in life that made Ken Loach's similarly themed I, Daniel Blake play like a soap opera in comparison. For his follow up, Brize has defied expectations, pivoting from the troubles of a working class man in the modern world to those of a noblewoman in 19th century France with A Woman's Life, his adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's novel Une vie.


A WOMAN'S LIFE

The woman in question is Jeanne (Judith Chemla), the attractive daughter of Baron Simon-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and his wife Adelaide (Yolande Moreau). As you might expect, Jeanne is raised in a world of privilege, but she exhibits a willingness to get her hands dirty, shadowing her father as he tends the farm on their estate, learning the tricks of his trade. She would seem qualified to take over the management of the family estate, but her parents decide that's a man's role and wed their daughter off to Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), handing over their land to Jeanne and their new son-in-law.

As soon as the ring is on Jeanne's finger it becomes tragically clear that her life is all but over. Any hopes, dreams and aspirations she may have had for herself are stolen along with her virginity on her wedding night, as Julien makes it clear he is in charge and Jeanne has become his property.


A WOMAN'S LIFE

Doing for female oppression what 12 Years a Slave did for slavery, A Woman's Life is far from an easy watch, and a loud sigh of exasperated relief could be heard at the end of the sold out festival screening I attended. Aside from the inconsiderate manner in which Julien introduces his young bride to the world of sex, Jeanne isn't subjected to any physical abuse, but the psychological abuse her husband, parents and society at large subject her to are equally discomforting.

Chemla delivers a truly heartbreaking performance, the life draining out of her face as she goes from a pretty young flower working alongside her father in her estate's gardens to a withered weed of a woman, the same estate now effectively holding her prisoner. She's on screen for the majority of the running time, and it's a performance largely played in silence, but Chemla conveys her character's wretched journey explicitly.


A WOMAN'S LIFE

Brize takes a cue from Andrea Arnold's divisive adaptation of Wuthering Heights, shooting his film in Academy ratio, his handheld camera getting into Chemla's face, charting the path of every line and wrinkle that gradually takes hold on her increasingly lifeless face. The 1.33:1 ratio becomes claustrophobic, holding Jeanne prisoner in its tight frame like the cruellest of jailers. With most of Jeanne's communication with the outside world coming in the form of letters received from her absent husband and later her son (Finnegan Oldfield), A Woman's Life is essentially a prison movie. It's one which denies its heroine an escape, and which similarly refuses to offer the viewer a release from its grip.

A Woman's Life is in UK/ROI cinemas January 12th.




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