The French film “A Woman’s Life,” set in the Normandy countryside in the first half of the 1800s, is based on Guy de Maupassant’s first novel, “L’Humble Vérité,” or “The Humble Truth,” a much better title for this movie. The woman, Jeanne (Judith Chemla), is too singular to stand in for all women, and she’s certainly humble. And yet her life, which director Stéphane Brizé and his co-writer, Florence Vignon, follow for 27 years from the time Jeanne is 20, is unavoidably representative. Her afflictions are both symbolic and intensely personal.
The convent-educated daughter of a low-level baron (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and baroness (Yolande Moreau), Jeanne is content puttering in the farmlands of the estate occupied by her family and frolicking with the housemaid (Nina Meurisse) with whom she grew up. When she is introduced to Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), the family’s new neighbor and an aristocrat of modest means, her parents impress upon her the need to marry him, although, somewhat anomalously for the time, they don’t command the union. They want her to love him, too.
The brief courtship of the couple, leading up to the wedding night, is presented by Brizé in the glancing manner that characterizes the entire film. A boat ride together in shimmery sunlight, Jeanne looking pensively out of a mansion window, a brief marital sex scene in which she stoically endures his attentions – all this is conveyed in a matter of minutes.
It takes Jeanne longer than it does us to recognize Julien’s caddishness. He berates her for burning too much firewood in the home, even though it is she who is confined within it most of the time while he gallivants about. His dalliances are exposed, and the local cleric coaxes Jeanne to forgive him. Later on, another priest pressures her to expose Julien’s adultery to the husband he has cuckolded, with tragic results. (The film, following De Maupassant’s lead, no doubt, exhibits an unstressed but prevalent anti-clericism.) Jeanne, who has given birth to a baby boy, endures a life of protracted hardship, as first her mother, on whom she doted, dies, followed by her stern but not unreasoning father, who held things together.
Because Jeanne is mostly passive throughout, Brizé attempts to dramatize her inner state by both the somewhat pretentious use of alternately sunny and sodden flashbacks and flash-forwards, and voice-overs, which, in their grandiosity, do not really match the rather mum and docile woman that we see. (In her cheerier moments, Jeanne speaks of “a patch of blue sky and hope in one’s heart” and says of herself, “You are a daughter of light.”) There are a few too many shots of Jeanne looking thoughtfully through rain-battered windows while a pianoforte tinkles on the soundtrack.
Chemla has an expressive face and she’s photographed lovingly, in a way that would probably have caught the attentions of the great French Impressionists, but ultimately she is more of a sculptural presence than a fully fleshed-out protagonist. Because the film is told entirely from her vantage point – there is not a scene in which she does not appear – Brizé’s fine-tuned poeticism can seem overly protracted. It is only in the film’s latter stages, when Jeanne is increasingly bereft and drained of what little money she has by her deadbeat son, that we can see how tribulation has deranged this woman.
Jeanne is no Madame Bovary, though. She may be stripped of her innocence in an indifferent universe, but the film provides, in its way, a happy ending of sorts. “Life,” we are told, “is never as good or as bad as you think.” Grade: B- (This movie is not rated.)