Late in the award-winning drama “A Woman’s Life,” the titular protagonist is informed that her properties now amount to only six of her family’s original 22 farms. In most other films, this scene might have been the last eye-rolling blow in a “rich people problems” story. But Stéphane Brizé is no ordinary filmmaker and Judith Chemla’s performance as Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds is far from average. As such, this scene is the culmination of a narrative of rare empathy and palpable emotion.
We are introduced to Jeanne in the prime of her carefree youth, having just finished her schooling in a convent. Living in 19th century France, she is on the verge of achieving one of society’s requirements of womanhood. An eligible suitor named Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud) visits her well-heeled family, with a marriage offer in hand. Soon enough, the pair are joined in matrimony, embarking on a tender romance. But gradually, Jeanne begins to wake up from her dreamy fairytale, with Julien revealing himself to be a hopeless womanizer. As she comes to terms with her inescapable reality, life throws her the additional pressures of motherhood. Taking on the surmounting challenges of her roles as mother and wife, Jeanne learns what it means to persevere as a woman in a man’s world.
Though infidelity forms a central theme in the plot, “A Woman’s Life” is no erotic thriller. Indeed, Brizé takes a more restrained, classic approach, even confining sex scenes to tight closeups in the film’s 4:3 Academy ratio. In this character study, the conflicts are largely internal, conveyed through subtle expressions befitting the restricted norms of the society.
As such, “A Woman’s Life” sees Brizé turning the traditional notion of a “woman’s picture” on its head. Eschewing the melodrama that has commonly been associated with women-centric films, he shows tremendous discipline in focusing on atmosphere rather than impassioned confrontations or spitfire dialogue. Unhurried, Brizé treats the audience to numerous scenes of simple domestic life – farming, frolicking outdoors and perhaps one too many shots of Jeanne staring pensively out the window. Indeed, if it weren’t all so vividly shot, it would be a tedious sit.
There’s a sweeping grace underneath the simplicity however, with the lifeblood of the film being Chemla’s transfixing performance. For all the film’s gorgeous scenery, the camera is most in love with her bright, expressive face. Through her subdued but lived-in performance, she explores the vast emotional terrain associated with her character’s personal turmoil. From her loss of innocence through to her subsequent struggles in love and the various other challenges of life, she crafts a character that becomes utterly relatable.
Ultimately, though “A Woman’s Life” is the story of a privileged aristocrat, the elegant filmmaking and stunning lead performance makes her plight deeply felt. As the saying goes, you can’t understand someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. And through this epic yet intimate journey, we feel the joys, disappoint and heartache that define our humanity.
“A Woman’s Life” opens in theaters May 5.