What a sympathetic piece of cinema this is. A Woman’s Life is the French-Belgian drama film directed by Stéphane Brizé which follows Jeanne (Judith Chelma) through a considerable part of her existence (years pass by in the swiftness of a cut).
When we first see her, she is a shy young woman devoted to her family: her days filled with reading and tending to her garden. She meets Julien (Swann Arlaud) and agrees to marry him. Unfortunately, for all his charm, he is an utter louse. This begins a cycle of the men in her life failing her. Played with tact and intelligence by Chelma, Jeanne is a tremendous literary heroine.
The scenes in which she reads act as adumbrations, as when events begin to turn for her, she begins to read her own life as if it were a novel (her mother also indulges in this activity, reading her own epistolary narrative). She analyses her own suffering to an exacting standard, and the film presents this self-reflexivity with great confidence.
And read her own suffering she must, for she suffers in excess. There’s a degree to which Brizé’s storytelling is cruel towards Jeanne, but this is balanced out by the camera, which is attentively trained her way; whether she’s happy, bored, or despondent, she’s always in sight of its respectful gaze.
A further act of kindness on the film’s behalf are those scenes in which Jeanne simply examines the great inventory of her memories, as her mother did with her letters. While Jeanne goes through the doldrums of her being, she recalls the bright moments which brought her happiness: early, painless times with her son; kissing and caressing Julien; laughing with her loved ones in her sun-soaked garden.
And as the ending comes, with its unexpected power and beauty, we reach a point where we’ve been through the variety of Jeanne’s emotional landscape, in which the film has succeeded to present us with – closer to the original title of Guy de Maupassant’s source novel ‘Une Vie’ (1886) – a life.