Jeanne de Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla) grapples with social expectations and a truly unlucky set of circumstances in 19th-century France.
Eschewing the overt staginess of many a period drama in favour of something looser and more earthy, Stéphane Brizé’s A Woman’s Life is a strikingly moody tone poem. Tethered to a nuanced and heartbreaking turn by Judith Chemla, the film documents the scant peaks and agonising troughs of Jeanne de Perthuis des Vauds’ life. It’s a bleak and rarely comfortable watch, but it taps into a level of emotional intimacy that one doesn’t immediately associate with its genre.
Part of this is due to its central character. Chemla’s eponymous ‘woman’ is not one of many words, but is able to express so much through the subtlest of gestures. She’s a figure utterly lacking in agency – notice that the title uses the indefinite article ‘A’ – and absorbing every blow of fate’s malicious hand, rendered devastatingly real by a performance that digs deeper and gets dirtier than the usual mannered politeness.
Crucially, though, she’s supported by an aesthetic that acts as a magnifying glass as opposed to a picture frame. Shooting in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, Brizé cleaves close to Chemla and makes every detail of her world tangible. The flickering of a candle, the splattering of the rain, the crispness of the leaves – all are captured with a verisimilitude that feels like a genuine moment captured in time. Stylistically it harkens to the stubborn realism of the Dogme ’95 movement, scrubbing away movie sheen to capture something far less pandering. There’s a messiness to it, a palpable sense of dirt, that resonates far beyond its humble demeanour.
Thematically, though, it’s closer to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood or – perhaps more fittingly – François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films. The film dips in and out of this woman’s life, dropping you into conversations and allowing the details to organically ease out before elliptically fading to a hazy point in the future. There’s a feeling that everything will continue existing outside of what we’re seeing, with Brizé observing with an objectivity that is, nonetheless, deeply compassionate.
Although, unavoidably, it’s less clean than that. A scene will cut away before it is finished, with the dialogue continuing over slow, contemplative montages. Flickers of earlier moments interrupt the present day, underscoring the emotion with a hunted melancholy. The sensation is one of a dream, or a distant memory in motion. It’s slight and unpretentious and it not be glamorous, but it undeniably lingers.