Director Stéphane Brizé (Mademoiselle Chambon, The Measure of a Man) applies his keen eye for social observation to costume drama with this striking adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s first published novel. A young aristocrat named Jeanne (Judith Chemla) raised and educated by kind, progressive parents seems poised on the brink of modern womanhood, but finds herself ill-prepared for a feckless husband and a pious, hypocritical society. Scrutinising its characters with startling intimacy, A Woman’s Life avoids melodrama in its tender yet incisive portrayal of her passing joys, pressures and disappointments.
“The pathos and wonder of A Woman’s Life comes from its recognition that Jeanne is at once a captive of cruel circumstances and a wilful, intelligent human being. Her kinship with other 19th-century fictional heroines – Emma Bovary, Jane Eyre, Anna Karenina – is evident. She suffers, but she also reads, thinks and desires, and strives to find a zone of freedom within boundaries dictated by fate and society.
There are a few dramatic incidents, including outbreaks of emotional and physical violence, but the real action in the film is interior, and Mr Brizé’s greatest skill is his ability to imply the deep and complicated emotions beneath the placid, decorous surface of Jeanne. A Woman’s Life... moves calmly and deliberately, but it never feels slow. Instead, its images and scenes are suffused by an intensity that seems almost to be a quality of the light and air as they play across Ms Chemla’s watchful, sometimes inscrutable features.” — A.O. Scott, NY