Monday 8 January 2018

Moi aussi: "A Woman's Life"

L'effet Downton est arrivé en France - in a roundabout fashion. A Woman's Life, Stéphane Brizé's bold and striking follow-up to 2015's very fine The Measure of a Man, whisks us back to 1819 and attempts to feel and think its way through a Guy de Maupassant novel last filmed by Alexandre Astruc in the late 1950s, moments before the New Wave struck. Astruc's film carried the book's original title Une Vie; here, that title receives an explicitly feminist translation, and Brizé's clearly onto something: his heroine Jeanne (Judith Chemla) is a baron's daughter who, protected by her wealth, invests her all in the men she chooses as her way out into the world - and comes to pay for it dearly. That this is a limited life is established from the off by small slivers of scenes showing Jeanne pottering aimlessly around the garden and playing backgammon with her father (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the 4:3 framing further emphasising how cramped this leisured existence might be. Brizé's focus rests firmly on people and their immediate circumstances, which is why Jeanne's horizons appear to expand once the dashing Viscount Julien (Swann Arlaud) rides into town. Julien immediately steals Jeanne's heart (and, it seems, her maidenhood), but this bounder assumes that his wife should know her place in his household, and is prepared to exert various forms of control to ensure that she does, separating her from her friends, grinding her down, becoming more and more flagrant in his betrayals of her.

Brizé's masterstroke is to realise that, for at least its first half, this narrative is a domestic abuse drama, and thus not something that needs dressing up unduly. The bulk of the film plays out in near-silence, without the usual florid-to-overwrought orchestral score; it looks, sounds and feels like how we used to live, to borrow a phrase from the television archives. (Its signature scene is a croquet game played out not on some sculpted emerald lawn, but a semi-overgrown backyard.) What this director ports across from his earlier, contemporary dramas is a carefully cultivated, in-the-moment realism. Antoine Héberlé's sometimes misty but generally unfussy hand-held photography catches the characters as they ordinarily are, whether frail or ferocious; the economic script, signed by Brizé and Florence Vignon, has a way of cutting through any fuss to the quick. We spy how quickly this romance sours, and how quickly Jeanne is obliged to grow up, and by running together the courtship, our heroine's memories and the inky darkness of her present, an entire life seems to flash before our eyes in a shade under two hours. The approach asks much of the performers - not least to go back nearly two hundred years into a less enlightened time, without many of the usual costume-drama guiderails; they're often left improvising within set-ups - and yet the remarkable Chemla really does seem to get older and more hardened with every passing scene, both weighed down and embittered by misplaced affection, wifely obligation, self-reproach and - at the last - terrible financial penury. It forms a tragedy, yet also a notable triumph: Brizé's decisions throughout confirm him as very much the real deal, a filmmaker able to move between present and past tenses with tremendous fluency, and with the precious ability to make his worlds come alive. A Woman's Life is the most radical French costume drama since Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress.

A Woman's Life opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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