Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
One can usually tell if a movie is going to be good or bad within the first twenty minutes. In the case of director Stéphane Brizé’s A WOMAN’S LIFE, I could tell within five that I had a very long, torturous hour and fifty-four minutes still ahead of me. Don’t get me wrong: I adore a really great stories about the female plight set in times not conducive to feminism. Period pieces filled with corsets and stuffy, cheating aristocrats are my jam. And you can pretty much count me in on any and all Jane Austen, Emily or Charlotte Brontë remakes, reboots or reimaginings (cough, cough. PPZ). However, Brizé’s French draaaaamaaaaah is too dreary, depressing and dull for its own good. This is indie’s answer to literary genre sludge.
If you’ve seen any film set in the 19th Century, you already know it wasn’t a good time to be a woman. And yet, this punishing movie is almost two hours long when it could’ve made its point in 83 minutes or less. Jeanne (played by the incandescent Judith Chemla) is about to find this out the hard way. Raised by two loving, modestly wealthy parents (played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Yolande Moreau) in Normandy, young Jeanne is blossoming in the world. But no sooner than she finds herself swept away by Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud) do things get worse. Tragic stuff country songs are made of begins to happen: Her wedding night sex is lousy and uncomfortable. Her husband has a wandering eye and screws their maid, Rosalie (Nina Meurisse). Religion is of no comfort as she’s forced by her priest into forgiving him. Julien, of course, cheats again – this time with her only bestie, Lady Gilberte de Fourville (Clotilde Hesme). A cloud of death begins to hang over her head, affecting the innocent people in her life. And the son she poured all her emotional energies into, Paul (Finnegan Oldfield), finally disappoints her, bleeding her dry of her last remaining wealth and sanity.
Listen, I’d be hard-pressed to say Brizé and Florence Vignon, working from Guy de Maupassant’s novel Une Vie, don’t make their point with some very solid arguments. There’s no disputing Jeanne didn’t have many empowering options to choose from, being stuck physically and mentally. Brizé also imparts a strong claustrophobia keeping the scope set in 4:3 Academy ratio, echoing Jeanne’s feelings of marital imprisonment and societal entrapment. The camera work is further commendable given that it almost exclusively stays on her perspective. It’s constantly reflective of her experience – whether that’s in a close up of her face during her deflowering, or frenetic, grainy handheld shots of her despondently running through a foggy field. Though it does leave a few necessary chunks out (salacious details like seeing Julien holed up with Rosalie), we don’t see things Jeanne herself isn’t experiencing. The vibe Brizé gives off is very much in tune with Andrea Arnold’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Plus, the juxtaposition of Jeanne’s warm flashbacks gives us an understanding of her psyche in a subtly entrancing manner – something Jean-Marc Vallee has the edge on over Brizé.
That said, it’s just overly brutal to the protagonist for no good reason. Perhaps the biggest problem is that there’s nothing unexpected, compelling nor entertaining about Jeanne’s travails. Her good looks and talent only carry us so far. While it ends on a hopeful uptick, it’s just not enough to excuse the rest of the time we spent watching the author drag his lead.
Overall, A WOMAN’S LIFE is chock-full of stereotypical, practically patented art house ennui. It’s more like “ugh-ui” in translation than anything.
Grade: D+ (for dreadfully dull and depressing)
A WOMAN’S LIFE (UNE VIE) played ColCoa on April 27. It opens in limited release on May 5 (in New York) and May 12 (in Los Angeles and Miami), distributed by KinoLorber.