If director Stéphane Brizé, last seen in Cannes with “The Measure of a Man,” seems an unlikely candidate to film a period-set Guy de Maupassant novel, then it’s our fault for limiting him to a particular time or genre. “A Woman’s Life” has the kind of majesty found not in the grand gesture but the modest detail, the kind that accumulates resonance with each seemingly minor event until the picture of a character becomes as complete as a painting by Ingres. Or a story by Maupassant. Astutely shot by Antoine Héberlé in Academy ratio, which continually calls attention to what’s half-obscured or outside the frame, this deeply moving tale of a minor noblewoman betrayed by her husband, her son, and in many ways, her idyllic youth, deserves widespread arthouse play, though its challenging nature may hinder sales.
It’s a pity the producers chose to go with the English language title “A Woman’s Life,” rather than the more accurate “A Life” — while both have historically been used in translations, the superfluous addition of gender reduces the story’s essential quality. Yes, it’s about a woman, one whose position is incontrovertibly different from a man’s, yet hers is a life writ large in small strokes, and the character deserves not to be reduced by a qualifier of any sort. Certainly Brizé’s treatment, in collaboration with Florence Vignon (the two joined forces on the director’s other literary adaptation, “Mademoiselle Chambon”) ensures Baroness Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla) has an emotional depth that warrants bold statements.
Jeanne has returned from convent school, back to the family chateau where she helps her father, Baron Simon-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), in the garden, and takes strolls with her mother Adélaïde (Yolande Moreau). Life is dappled with summer sun, and Jeanne turns her face to its warmth, inhaling with a sense of expectancy. When handsome Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud) comes for her hand, the young baroness imagines her future path will be as rosy as her beloved father’s flower beds, which her parents cede to the newlyweds. Brizé films Jeanne’s loss of virginity — “deflowering” is a particularly apt word in this instance — in dimly lit close-up, her clear discomfort ignored by her new husband but certainly not the viewer.
As winter comes, Jeanne suffers from isolation and cold. Her husband is as frosty as the rooms he forbids her from heating, and her one companion, Rosalie (Nina Meurisse), the maid she grew up with, is suddenly distant. Both women have babies, but to Jeanne’s horror she learns that Rosalie’s is the product of a rape by Julien. Rather than filming the usual accusatory scene, Brizé chooses a murky long shot at night, with Julien running through the grounds after Jeanne, who screams to be left alone. The scene is short and deeply upsetting as the director cuts closer and closer while maintaining an indistinct graininess.
The couple’s reconciliation is brokered by Abbé Picot (Olivier Perrier) alongside her parents, and Jeanne at last finds a friend in neighboring Countess Gilberte de Fourville (Clotilde Hesme), whose husband Georges (Alain Beigel) is Julien’s friend. Paradise is once again lost when Jeanne spies her husband frolicking with Gilberte; she confides in Abbé Tolbiac (Father François-Xavier Ledoux), who urges her to tell Georges, but she refuses. The priest takes it upon himself, and in a remarkably effective, understated montage, Brizé shows the results: the countess and Julien’s nude corpses, and Georges’ body following his suicide.
Throughout “A Woman’s Life,” the director plays with time shifts, contrasting summer light, when Jeanne’s unsullied expectations for a life as full of warmth as that of her childhood remain intact, with rain-lashed scenes of increasing dourness. Her clothes, brightly colored in the early years, change to dark-on-dark patterns, her hair is flatter, and the weight of sadness hangs heavily. Her son Paul is her one solace, but he too will let her down. By the film’s end, audiences will feel as if they’ve seen one of the rare visualizations of a 19th-century novel that doesn’t merely follow a plot but captures depth of character, and while the way Brizé plays with past and present isn’t in the book, the device functions as the cinematic equivalent of rich descriptive prose, imparting depth and texture.
Such goals are further enhanced by a flawless cast, starting with Chemla (“This Summer Feeling”), whose projection of Jeanne’s girlish optimism, then disillusionment and finally, despair, becomes an unbearable trajectory. Her seemingly effortless transformation from convent schoolgirl to wearied grandmother isn’t achieved via filters or caked-on wrinkles (though Garance Van Rossum’s understated makeup is commendable), but chiefly thanks to Chemla’s changes in body language and determination. Yolande Moreau is an eternally welcome presence, and Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s warm solidity is affecting.
The restricted framing is an inspired choice, forcing an awareness of what’s around the figures as well as what keeps them within the reduced space. Héberlé’s handheld camera imparts a sense of being alive, and the placement of the characters toward the picture plane creates a further bond with the audience, even when half-cut off at the edges. In addition, Madeline Fontaine’s exceptionally well-chosen costumes are beautifully suited to character and tone. On a historical note, Venice’s competition played host to an earlier version of the story, the Maria Schell starrer “End of Desire” from 1958, directed by Alexandre Astruc.