Dir: Stephane Brize | Drama | France | 114min
Hot on the heals of his 21st century social drama, The Measure of a Man, that won the Cannes Best Actor Award in 2015, UNE VIE is an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s first novel, a painterly domestic tragedy set in 18th century Normandy that tackles similar social themes that occured 300 hundred years beforehand.
Intimate in scale (shot on Academy Ratio) and utterly absorbing, UNE VIE follows 30 years of a privileged woman’s life from the age of 17-47 echoing the same tortured tragedy familiar in all Maupassant’s work – in some ways he was a French equivalent of Thomas Hardy in that his stories are firmly rooted in the French landscape with a palpable sense of the ‘terroir’. Accordingly, he opens his film as the heroine Jeanne (Judith Chemla) is planting lettuces in the pottager of the Chateau she shares with her Baron father (Jean Pierre Darroussin) and Baroness mother (Yolande Moreau).
Brizé’s choice of the Academy ratio – used in silent film – embodies the closeted almost claustrophobic nature of Jeanne’s life which it is full of love and laughter until she is introduced to her future husband, a flawed and improvished nobleman, Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arland) who will bring nothing but misery and pain.
Working with his regular writer Florence Vignon, Brizé condenses the novel into an engrossing drama (just short of two hours) that quails away from the habitual mannered approach of classic period dramas to create a naturalistic and impressionist portrait that retains considerable dramatic heft, thanks to Anne Klotz’ suberb editing, while also being sensitive and delicately rendered in Antoine Heberle’s exquisite visuals that flip from vibrant summer days to the wretched, rain-soaked wintery ones that presage doom and disaster from the beginning.
The film unravels in a succession of suggestive short scenes that sketch out episodes in the narrative leaving us to fill in the gaps with our own imagination and leave time for Jeanne to contemplate and process her thoughts and feelings. After the couple are married, we are left to surmise that all is not well between the sheets: when Jeanne finds her maid Rosalie’s bedroom empty in the night, a brief but melodramtic scene in the garden follows implying that Julien and Rosalie are up to no good. It soon emerges that Julien’s poor family traits are inbred.
True to the page, Brize also outlines Maupassant’s mistrust of religion and the church in general: The consequences of Jeanne’s reliance on the family pastor (Francois-Xavier Ledoux) for moral guidance over her husband’s behaviour lead to more heartake involving her seemingly close friend and neighbour Georges de Fourville (Alain Beigel), whose wife, Gilberte (Clotilde Hesme) ends up having a dalliance with the cheating Julien.
The Baron, a strong but largely silent performance from Jean-Pierre Darroussin, is extremely vocal when it comes to his grandson (played by Finnegan Oldfield as a late teenager and beyond) who appears to have inherited his father’s profligacy and lack of integrity, but Jeanne turns a blind eye to these traits, investing all her love in him and channeling all her hope for the future in his empty promises.
Judith Chemla (Camille Rewinds) gives a calm but resonating performance as Jeanne generating considerable empathy as she slowly absorbs years of sadness, loss and emotional turmoil to her considerable detriment as she reaches middle age. One again Stephane Brizé crafts a powerful and immersive character drama, impeccably crafted and enormously moving. MT
VENICE FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 10 SEPTEMBER 2016