The rare period piece that feels observed rather than pretended, Stéphane Brizé’s “A Woman’s Life” finds the prolific French filmmaker applying his ruggedly naturalistic style — used to great effect in last year’s blue-collar drama, “The Measure of a Man” — to some very different source material. Adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s 1883 debut novel, Brizé’s latest is less a well-furnished historical saga than it is a selective simulation of life in the middle of the 19th Century; de Maupassant may have died before the invention of narrative cinema, but it’s easy enough to imagine him watching this doggedly matter-of-fact drama without the slightest bit of confusion. Merchant Ivory fans might find themselves feeling restless, but anyone who appreciated the quotidian rigor of Terence Davies’ “A Quiet Passion” will find a lot to love about this epic of asceticism.
Spanning decades with the speed of a pebble skittering across the surface of a lake — but, contrary to all laws of physics, managing to gain momentum as it goes along — the film begins on a seemingly random day in the life of Baroness Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla). An attractive woman of indeterminate age, Jeanne is introduced as she strolls through parents’ sun-kissed garden, but it doesn’t really matter what she’s doing or with whom she’s doing it. Brizé traces Jeanne’s life the way that we remember our own, skipping laterally through the years like a slide projector that can’t account for the space between its images.
One moment she’s talking to her father (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) about God knows what, and the next she’s flirting with the elfin boy who’s wandered into the countryside with marriage on his mind. He is the Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), and he and Jeanne agree to tie the knot before we learn much of anything about them. This is a story of action, of flow, of the sheer inertia of being alive, and reason doesn’t tend to factor into it all that much.
That seldom works out in Jeanne’s favor. The Viscount turns out to be a colossal bastard who rapes the maid and fathers children with both women in short succession (his pathetic, simpering apology is a rare bit of bluntness in a movie that prefers to sublimate the patriarchy into the ambient details of its heroine’s life). How Brizé handles the man’s ultimate comeuppance makes for the most satisfying of the story’s elliptical reveals, but — even then — “A Woman’s Life” is more focused on the residue of an event than it is on the event itself.
Brizé, who shoots in a boxy 4:3 aspect-ratio that locks Jeanne into herself and prevents her (and us) from looking too far in either direction, likes to intercut flashbacks into the film with the precision of a scalpel, constantly confronting Jeanne with memories of happier times. It’s a good trick, these pokes of nostalgia proving effective each and every time because they offer such a sharp contrast to the numb velocity that defines the rest of the movie.
Chemla is vivid and strikingly present throughout, her careful and contained performance so grounded in the reality of Jeanne’s circumstances that her posture alone is enough to tell us how old she is at any given moment, or how much time has passed since last we thought to check. Even more impressive is how seamlessly Chemla suffers and survives the few moments of sharp emotional trauma that are visited upon her character — the scene in which Jeanne discovers her husband’s savage betrayal is shot and performed with a feral rage that would make Andrea Arnold blush.
“A Woman’s Life” is a very particular experience, told with consistency and without a whit of compromise. It’s not always exciting, but there’s something tremendously rewarding (and very sad) about the matter-of-factness of it all, the ceaseless indifference of time’s steady forward march. Everything — all social commentary, all personal drama, even the fascinating moral dilemma that rivets Jeanne down the middle of the movie — is second to the fact that Brizé’s heroine is hurtling towards the history books. But, thanks to Chemla, at least you will remember her.
“A Woman’s Life” is now in theaters.