UK Release Date: 12th January 2018
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: Stéphane Brizé
Writer: Stéphane Brizé, Florence Vignon
Starring: Judith Chemla, Swann Arlaud, Nina Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau, Clotilde Hesme
Synopsis: A noblewoman marries a man from an even wealthier family after being schooled at a convent, but finds her life is not as comfortable as her lifestyle and status would suggest.
The illusions of a naive young woman and progressively shattered throughout the course of A Woman’s Life – a French-Belgian period drama that cannot be faulted for its ambition, spanning generations of time in its attempt to create a portrait of an entire adult life. However, it’s also an opaque and occasionally frustrating character study that unfolds at a soporific pace, refusing to delve too deeply into the people at its heart.
We meet Jeanne (Judith Chemla) as she returns home from a convent, where she has been for some time as part of her schooling. She marries attractive young viscount Julien (Swann Arlaud) and seems set for a life of upper crust luxury. However, Julien proves to be violent and treats her terribly. Family tragedies and financial misfortunes soon come together to crush Jeanne’s illusions about the comfortable life she once appeared to have ahead of her.
There’s something dreamlike and intriguing about A Woman’s Life from its earliest stages and Judith Chelma’s performance has a considerable gravitational pull. Unfortunately, the moving parts orbiting around her are never extended beyond mere thumbnail sketches – the mentor father, the dirtbag husband, the giggling girlfriend, and so on. This is a world of isolation, but it feels as if we’re only handed scraps of even the world’s tight inner circle. The film’s most potent images, of which there are several, would have more impact if the audience had chance to invest in characters beyond the protagonist.
Stéphane Brizé‘s direction is slow and measured, utilising the claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio for some oppressive close-ups and a scene of Chemla losing her virginity that is intentionally and powerfully uncomfortable. The direction is solid throughout, aided by the constant sound of wind and nature rattling through the enormous house, like in William Oldroyd‘s far-superior period piece Lady Macbeth.
A Woman’s Life is an interesting film, but it’s also one that’s overlong and inscrutable at times. The slow pace makes the entire thing something of a tedious slog and the narrative or performance high points are not enough to weather that storm. There’s a good film to be found somewhere within this project, but Brizé hasn’t managed to pull it to the surface. It’s a failure, but an honourable one.
Pop or Poop?
Despite its impressive photography and intriguing cinematic craft, A Woman’s Life never packs the punch it requires to succeed as a compelling drama. Judith Chemla’s central performance is sophisticated, but the film’s glacial narrative and opaque style make it impossible to invest fully in the action.
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