Would modern women find anything to glean from the experiences of a fictional 19th century aristocratic French woman? Perhaps not literally, but in Stephane Brize's (A Measure of a Man) depressing A Woman's Life, there are fleeting moments here and there of feeling and situations that all women can emphasize with.
A Woman's Life is adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s first novel, called Une vie in French which translates to "a life" as opposed to a woman's life specifically. I find this distinction interesting because the film focuses so closely one how a single woman is coming to terms with her constant mistreatment. Perhaps the original title of the book is indicative of how often the trials of women are downplayed? At any rate, we have here the story of Jeanne (Judith Chemla), the daughter of a baron who is married away to handsome aristocrat Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), who is initially quite romantic and dashing. Jeanne is whisked to his grand estate but quickly realizes that everything is not as it seems with her darling husband.
The way that this film handles narrative is intriguing as it never lingers in any one time period for too long, instead flitting from scene-to-scene jumping around in Jeanne's life. It covers twenty years in her lifetime and the dichotomy between her formerly carefree life and her current grey drudgery is sad to witness. What is most important to take away from her story is the fact that she has no agency to control the trajectory of her happiness--everything she does has to go through her husband and what he thinks is the best for the both of them. Unless he takes her out she is trapped in his house like a prison. If he does terrible things other people ask her to forgive him instead of taking him to task for what he has done. When she finally has a son, his happiness takes precedence over her own. It's telling.
A Women's Life is still gorgeously presented even in its misery and agony. There are beautiful wide shots of countryside interspersed with claustrophobic and intimate close-ups. At times the editing can feel a bit haphazard, but when taken as a whole it makes more sense. There are parallels to be made between Jeanne's current and former life and how it so quickly spiraled out of her control. The musical score is quite sparse and most of the film is filled out with background noise and quiet dialogue.
This is a low-key film that definitely won't appeal to everyone. For those who are able to sit down and absorb Jeanne's experiences it might end up being an illuminating experience.