FOR those who like their drama full of pain and angst, A Woman’s Life will be right up your street.
Adapted from a novel by Guy de Maupassant, this French tale, set in the early nineteenth century, centres on the various betrayals committed against Jeanne (Judith Chemla) as her life – from childhood to motherhood and late middle age – moves from the idyllic to the near tragic. There are other betrayals besides but they are for you to discover.
Set in Normandy where it never seems to stop raining, Jeanne is the only child of wealthy aristocrats Simon-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Adelaide (Yolande Moreau) who own farms aplenty. Idyllic days are spent by Jeanne in the grounds of the chateau learning how to grow vegetables.
She then weds the handsome Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud) who takes her virginity in unsentimental fashion. A series of grunts, a request to stop declined and not an ounce of emotion or feeling. It is a portent of things to come as Julien turns out to be a serial cad, happy to make love to any female who comes within his circle.
Conquests include the maid Julien has grown up with (Rosalie, played by Nina Meurisse) and the neighbour’s sexy wife (Gilberte de Fourville, played by Clotilde Hesme). His seed has a habit of spawning children, in and outside of marriage.
Foolishly, Jeanne sticks with the nasty piece of work who, when his pants are not around his ankles, chides her for burning too much wood and lighting too many candles.
Normandy is not a place to be when the rain is lashing down and central heating has yet to be invented.
To make matters worse, Jeanne’s son, sent to a church school, is nothing but a difficult child. Eventually, he moves to London with a girlfriend and then proceeds to constantly ask Jeanne for money she does not have.
Jeanne, comforted by the return of Rosalie who mothered one of Julien’s children, slides into debt – slides being an appropriate word given the amount of rain that continues to pour down on this particular part of Normandy.
Apart from the incessant rain, the roaring sea and the undercurrent of adultery, there is also plenty of death. Some which reveal dark secrets in their aftermath, others of a murderous nature. And of course, the Church has its say, little of it constructive as far as Jeanne’s destiny is concerned.
It all sounds quite thrilling but A Woman’s Life certainly isn’t (the gentleman behind me in the cinema snored his way through most of the film bar the first 10 minutes).
The film, directed by Stephane Brize, is too long at just short of two hours and it has a tendency to jump back into the past (fine) and then fast forward people’s lives (not so fine). A little confusing. It is a technique that requires the audience to concentrate (falling asleep is not advisable).
There are a few beautiful moments in amongst the doom and gloom – Jeanne playing in the garden as a youngster with her maid to be Rosalie, happy as Larry. But the rest is all gritty stuff which may grind you down after a hard day at the office.
Chemla is the star of the film. How she never got pneumonia standing around in all that rain waiting for her son to return is a wonder of the world. Hesme is also sexy and flirtatious as Gilberte.
A Woman’s Life is for franco-cinephiles only. It will leave you more chilled than warmed.