Guy de Maupassant’s first novel, called Une vie in French and somewhat oddly translated as A Woman’s Life in English, had the original subtitle L’Humble Verité, or The Humble Truth. Not only would this modest-seeming subtitle be a perfect description of the style and appeal of practically all of the literary giant’s output, but this particular turn of phrase also seems like a fitting moniker for the latest adaptation of A Woman’s Life, this time from French director Stephane Brizé (The Measure of a Man).
Shot in the almost-square Academy ratio, the film opens a small but very insightful and touching window onto the life of the woman of the English-language title, the daughter of a baron whose desires and opportunities are hemmed in on all sides by what was considered decent and proper for women in the first half of the 1800s — not to speak of some of the sheer misfortune that befell her and her family.
This beautifully composed Venice competition title should appeal to the high-end of the art house segment, though there’s no denying that, like Flaubert’s more famous Madame Bovary, which partially inspired de Maupassant’s “humble” effort, it is often not exactly a happy story.
Brizé and his regular co-screenwriter Florence Vignon have been working on this adaptation even before Measure (which Vignon didn’t co-author) and have managed to boil down the sprawling, almost 300-page novel into a film just shy of two hours. Since they have to cover 27 years in the life of Jeanne (Judith Chemla), from age 20 on, they’ve decided to work like impressionist painters, with many often very short scenes presented in rapid succession, which together, when one steps backs and looks at the final result, offers a kind of mosaic-like overview of a life.
When Jeanne is introduced to Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), for example, a young and not very rich aristocrat who has become the family’s new neighbor, we first see a medium-wide shot in which he exchanges stiff bonjours with Jeanne and her parents, the Baron (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Baroness (Yolande Moreau) Le Perthuis des Vauds.
This is immediately followed by a medium close-up of just the couple on a boat, with their hands awfully close together, and then a medium shot of Jeanne looking out the window while we hear her parents, off-screen, as they interrogate her about her feelings for Julien and try to explain what marrying this particular fellow would mean for her and the family.
This whirlwind sequence ends with another medium close-up in which Julien tries to have sex with Jeanne on what we assume is their wedding night and we can feel her (in hindsight also prophetic) suffocation. Taken as an ensemble, these four short scenes, briskly cut together by the gifted Anne Klotz (another Brizé regular) and with cinematographer Antoine Heberlé’s precise framing helping to tell part of the story, explain everything we need to know. There’s the couple’s cold introduction, rapid rapprochement and courtship, careful consideration on her family’s behalf — they are richer than he is but the advantage is that she could continue to live in the family mansion since he would have to move in — and her (also literal) pain when the reality of what must have been a fantasized idyll first hits her.
Much of the film is constructed in a similar way, suggesting things about wholes — whole relationships, moral stands, recurring moods and troubles — while seemingly focusing almost exclusively on particulars. This keeps the narrative fleet in terms of its storytelling while it allows Brizé the time to dwell on significant but often normal-seeming in-between moments that reveal Jeanne’s character and thinking.
The constantly changing seasons and details of the state of upkeep of the family mansion also help suggest the passage of time, while Brizé and Klotz also seamlessly integrate short flashforwards and flashbacks, with the latter often suggesting that Jeanne might be thinking about things from the past, like for example her late mother or her beloved only son, Paul (played as an adult by Finnegan Oldfield), whose (comically increasing) squandering ways abroad and then in faraway Paris cause Jeanne to live in ever-increasing poverty and loneliness.
Though Brizé manages to cover a lot of ground, certain elements have of course been greatly reduced or cut altogether, including Jeanne’s stillborn daughter, who is not included here. In the novel, she was born on the same night as (spoiler ahead) Julien was killed by a neighbor, Georges de Fourville (Alain Beigel), whose wife, Gilberte (Clotilde Hesme) was having an affair with Julien, his second extramarital dalliance after first getting the Baron’s family’s help (Nina Meurisse) pregnant, much to his wife’s dismay.
It is the local pastor (played by Francois-Xavier Ledoux, an actual priest) who insists that Jeanne, who has found out about Julien and Gilberte, tell Georges the truth, which she refuses because she knows instinctively that the pure and upright man wouldn’t be able to handle it. When, after much prodding, he decides to finally do it himself, the outcome is shocking and tragic (and different from the novel to keep the point-of-view closer to Jeanne). Even so, Brizé treads softly everywhere and has toned down much of the novel’s anticlerical material, with the Baron, for example, now seemingly having no opinion on matters of the church.
Though a dark-haired beauty rather than the novel’s blonde — imagine a young Juliette Binoche with clearer eyes and you’re pretty much there — the 31-year-old Chemla (Camille Rewinds) is a revelation in the title role and utterly mesmerizing and credible whether she’s playing Jeanne at 20 or at 47. What’s crucial is the amount of empathy she manages to generate for her character, since Jeanne’s increasingly limited options and means have a negative influence on her temperament as she ages, so an early connection to her and her difficult situation is crucial.
The camerawork, production design and costumes are all impressive, though the technical credit that most deserves a shout-out is the makeup and hair by Garance Van Rossum. No doubt in consultation with Brizé, she has made a conscious effort to avoid altering the actors too much over the years, relying on just a few changes in makeup and light — Jeanne’s eyes seem to fall back more into their sockets as she ages and her skin becomes paler — while the characters’ hair changes style more than it seems to actually gray. The actors further help their transformations by small changes in posture, body language and motoric speed. This is the kind of subtlety that perfectly suits the material and does de Maupassant’s humble truth about a woman’s life justice.
Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production companies: TS Productions, France 3 Cinema, Versus Production, F comme Film, CN5 Productions
Cast: Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau, Swann Arlaud, Nina Meurisse, Olivier Perrier, Clotilde Hesme, Alain Beigel, Finnegan Oldfield, Lucette Beudin, Jerome Lanne, Melie Deneuve, Father Francois-Xavier Ledoux
Director: Stephane Brize
Screenplay: Stephane Brize, Florence Vignon, based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant
Producers: Milena Poylo, Gilles Sacuto
Director of photography: Antoine Heberle
Production designer: Valerie Saradjian
Costume designer: Madeline Fontaine
Editor: Anne Klotz
Music: Olivier Baumont
Casting: Brigitte Moidon, Coralie Amedeo
Not rated, 118 minutes