Those familiar with Stéphane Brizé’s contemporary morality tale The Measure of a Man may be surprised by his latest film, A Woman’s Life. To be fair, both films show people who are forced to adjust to brutal, unforeseen circumstances. The Measure of a Man, about a worker who is suddenly laid off, and finds himself unsuitable for most specialized jobs, not to mention for the vicissitudes of job hunting, was painful in the way it exposed the main character’s vulnerability. Similarly, in A Woman’s Life, we follow the fate of Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds, a young woman from a French land-owning family, whose unfortunate marriage leads first to her emotional deterioration, and then to her financial ruin.
Jeanne learns of her husband’s dark secret soon after they marry. As a result, she loses those most dear to her, beginning with her childhood friend, whom she employs at her home as a maid. When her husband’s behavior leads to a tragedy, Jeanne finds herself bringing up their child alone. At first, this seems like a welcome reprieve. But the sins of the father appear to be passed on to the children in this punishing tale, and the son she so enviously protects escapes the family nest for the chance of a first romantic fling. His adventures lead him to London, where he fritters away most of the family’s already diminished fortune.
A Woman’s Life is constructed as a long reminiscence, and it’s this fluidity that rescues it from seeming overly forlorn. In Jeanne’s mind, the happier moments, particularly of her tight-knit family circle, and her maidenhood, burst onto the screen with great frequency as the plot unfolds. Because of this interlacing of past and present, a melancholy mood sets in. The bygone happiness is filtered through the current darkness—an image of ragged Jeanne with her pale face and dark circles is a recurring refrain. The flashbacks help us empathize with Jeanne’s paralyzing passivity. At times, she appears to be that familiar figure of 19th century fiction, Madam Bovary, which Gustave Flaubert so famously cut back to scale, showing how florid imagination and lack of economic know-how led to an easy ruin. In contrast, Jeanne has no girlish notions; true to her landowner upbringing, she prizes the land and manual work, and is modest beyond reproach. But her economic survival is imperiled early on—she cannot deny her son anything, as if reacting to her own past, when her husband tried to skimp on wood, fretting over how little fortune they had left. Where Madame Bovary may have chosen death, Jeanne favors delusion, helplessly clinging onto the hope that she’ll see her son again.
Brizé’s film is based on an eponymous novel by Guy de Maupassant filmed twice before, and it’s thanks to the author that the narrative is suffused with subtle yet piquant moral commentary. When Jeanne, taught a bitter lesson by her earlier need to let bygones be bygones, wisens up to her husband’s inability to change, she refuses to have his fickleness exposed, so as not to ruin other, innocent people’s happiness. In one key sequence, however, a local parish priest imposes on her his stern notion of sin and compliance. When she categorically refuses to confront the involved parties, the priest takes it upon himself to do so, in the name of truth and decency. In the following morbid scene, as Jeanne loses those she has loved so dearly, even at the price of her own private torment, we can see that Maupassant has precious little patience for the church’s righteous, heavy-handed meddling.