Arrow Video: The Love of a Woman (1953) - Reviewed

Arrow Video, like The Criterion Collection, continues to prove themselves to be a benchmark of educational film releasing informing this still young but eager to learn cinephile of some of the greatest films from the world over.  Their latest offering, the final film of still largely unknown in the US French director Jean Gremillon The Love of a Woman is no exception, providing viewers with all the hallmarks of a grandiose tragic romantic melodrama steeped in uncompromising realism with a hefty dose of ambiguity as to whether or not we should feel elated or devastated by what transpires.  Whereas an American film production of this story would have taken a black or white, happy or sad choice for our central protagonist in the end, The Love of a Woman brilliantly sidesteps an easy conclusion truer to life than one would expect.

Like Powell and Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! before it, The Love of a Woman concerns a headstrong and fiercely independent female doctor named Marie Prieur (Micheline Presle) who upon the arrival of an isolated island of Ushant finds her life at crossroads.  Elegant in visual splendor and disarming simplicity, the film posits an existential question for the strong willed heroine: should she live out her vocation as a compassionate and selfless doctor or should she give it all up in search of love if that means submitting to the role of devoted housewife?  When it isn’t serving up a still relevant commentary on the roles of women in society and what it truly means to love another, this is among the earliest examples I can recall of what it means to be a female doctor in a male dominated work force. 

Some of the greatest challenges a doctor faces from calming the patients to commanding a surgery and bringing the divided under unity with a single minded goal of working together to save a patient’s life are given a rarely seen spotlight here.  As with Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, the French film offers up to this time some of the most explicitly graphic and realistic surgery footage depicted in a fictional film and there were times during a patient’s conscious abdominal hernia incision that I wanted to look away, furthering our respect for Marie’s composure and professionalism in the medical field.  Contrasting Marie’s elation from successful medical treatments is her love for an Italian man named Andre Lorenzi (Massimo Girotti), who cares deeply for Marie but can’t adjust to her professional life which leaves little to no room for him.

Visually the film is splendid with elegant cinematography by Louis Page and fine performances across the board though Massimo Girotti’s dubbed dialogue takes some getting used to.  The soundtrack co-written by Elsa Barraine and Henri Dutilleux is a bit of a heavy handed warm up to the likes of Bernard Herrmann but The Love of a Woman contains so many great scenes free of music that we don’t mind the forcefulness of the score when it comes on.  What struck me about The Love of a Woman aside from the brilliant location scouting (though some shots are evidently created on a film set) is the use of close ups of actors tear streaked faces.  The film is heavy on the exchanges of dialogue but zeros in on particular pauses indicating on the actors an emotional complexity that isn’t about to dictate easy routes for the cast of characters. 

In a film that could so easily have gone the happy/sad route with such a difficult position for our heroine to be in, The Love of a Woman earns it’s stature as one of the great French romantic melodramas by refusing to provide Marie with a simple solution.  Life itself is never as simple as most movies lay the decision making process out to be and it was a rare thing of beauty to see a 50s melodrama present viewers with choices that offer as many rewards as they likely would include consequences.  While I admit to being at a disadvantage in the director’s last film being my first, what I can say is that I was taken in by this delightful and frequently sad ode to what it means to be a professional woman torn between patriarchal expectations of love and living out her life as the selfless and independent individual she always was.  Of the bygone era of French melodramas that were equal parts old fashioned schmaltz and unbridled realism, The Love of a Woman is without a doubt one of the very best the genre has to offer!

- Andrew Kotwicki