The gendered specificity of A Woman’s Life signals Stéphane Brizé’s interest in adapting a period-set Guy de Maupassant novel, one whose French title, Une Vie, is less absolute in its relation to a woman’s experience and position within male-dominated domesticity and society. Brizé makes the plight of Jeanne (Judith Chemela) a claustrophobic cinematic experience, with tight close-ups and dim lighting consistently tethering us to her mounting sense of dread, as each and every man in her life betrays her in some shape or form. Brizé’s adaptation is mostly a grievance for Jeanne’s woes as woman, wife, and mother at the hands of wealthy Julien (Swann Arlaud), her adulterous husband, and Paul (Finnegan Oldfield), her fiscally irresponsible son.
Brizé, taking a page from Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, shoots in the Academy ratio, which automatically places A Woman’s Life within a growing crop of contemporary historical films that use a full-frame ratio as an aesthetic choice. Jeanne’s wedding night with Julien highlights her unspoken disappointment, as her lack of expression suggests silence and repressed feeling as her only mode of being. Later, after it’s clear that Julien isn’t only a cheat, but also a rapist, Brizé opts for an extreme long shot of Julien chasing Jeanne around the grounds at night. The sequence, lit with the faintest sense of moonlight, is the film’s first engagement with imagery often associated with horror films; it’s also a foreshadowing for a later surveying of corpses following a double homicide and suicide.
As an adaptation of a 19th-century novel, A Woman’s Life is less driven by fidelity to its source material than an expression of feminist sorrow that has more in common with silent cinema, such as French filmmaker Germaine Dulac’s The Smiling Madame Beudet from 1923, through its preference for images that invoke an interior state. Whereas Dulac’s woman escapes into reverie so as to remove herself from the clutches of an obnoxious and suffocating husband, Jeanne becomes increasingly comatose and grief-stricken at the realization of her deteriorating existence.
Accordingly, Brizé harps on Jeanne’s pain in the film’s second half with little relief as Paul becomes increasingly reckless and entitled, mailing for large sums of money to absolve him from failed business ventures and, it seems, a rampant gambling addiction. That Paul, her newfound hope for meaning following her husband’s betrayal, also uses his mother to consumptive ends isn’t configured by the writer-director with notable significance; the go-to shot is Jeanne weeping or forlornly gazing out a window in close-up.
The film’s strongest moments encase Jeanne within a male-dominated system of advice and pressures, convincingly depicting how happiness can never be attained when its existence relies on the self-interest of others. Jeanne seeks the council of Father Picot (Olivier Perrier) about Julien’s tryst with a neighboring married woman; after Jeanne refuses to inform the woman’s husband of her knowledge, Picot dogmatically repeats how God hates sins of the flesh but detests lies more. That Picot’s intervention leads to violence seems inevitable for Brizé: Religious law, no less than a misogynist social order, necessarily breeds violence from institutionally imposed repression.
Philosophical themes float throughout A Woman’s Life like buzzing bees around spring flowers (Brizé uses numerous shots of flowers as an analogy for Jeanne’s delicacy), but the film seldom reconciles them into more than overt expressions of Jeanne’s despondency. Her victimization is compellingly conveyed, but as to what Brizé intends her suffering to suggest beyond the mere fact of said suffering is left hanging. Furthermore, Brizé’s choice of low-grade, handheld digital images only further reduces the film to the clichés of revisionist literary filmmaking, where a lack of visual detail and a washed-out color palette mirrors the protagonist’s ongoing psychological pain.