In adapting the novel by Guy de Maupassant, Stéphane Brizé has kept the story pretty much intact, but has scrapped the usual modus operandi. Set in in Normandy in 1819, Une vie tells the story of Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla), a young lady from a noble family living a happy but sheltered life with her parents (Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Yolande Moreau). One day she falls in love with Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud) and marries him. He turns out to be a dreadful husband, a miser who has been unfaithful to her. He has slept with their maid, Rosalie (Nina Meurisse), and she is now pregnant. As described in the film, it sounds more like it was sexual harassment. She listen to the priest’s demands, and what were the conventions at the era, and saves the family from scandal by forgiving her husband. Later she discover that Julien has been having an affair with her best friend, the married Gilberte de Fourville (Clotilde Hesme). Later it is her son Paul, who will cause her much sorrow. As an adult (played by Finnegan Oldfield), his constant demands for money will almost ruin her. At the time it was published (1883), de Maupassant’s Une vie was described as a realist novel. Mostly filming with a handheld camera and improvised as well as scripted dialogue, Brizé brings immediacy and urgency to every scenes. If a few moments of heated arguments between some of the characters are too long, those moments add more credibility to the film. It sounds and looks real. And when things become particularly sad for Jeanne, Brizé flashbacks to a time where things were better. Her husband loved her then, her son was a young and lovely boy and she was gardening with her father. Or are they really flashbacks rather than Jeanne reinventing the truth into a more idyllic imagined life. Judith Chemla and her minimalist acting is the perfect casting for playing a French woman in 19th century’s repressed society. She plays the young or the old Jeanne without much makeup, giving the later scenes an eerie quality. Chemla does old age better than anyone using none of the usual tricks. Cinematographer Antoine Héberlé films the bright, sunny days in the garden and the dark, rainy nights in the mud with the same care and craftsmanship. If this a film to value if, like me, you are tired of the same old lace umbrella period drama.
Une vie (A woman’s life)
Based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant
In French with English subtitles.