A Heartbreaking Adaptation of Guy de Maupassant

in 73rd Venice International Film Festival

by Paola Casella

Stéphane Brizé’s A Life (Une Vie), winner of the Fipresci prize in the Competition section for the 73rd edition of the Venice Film Festival, is an original and heartbreaking adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s A Life. The French novel, first published in 1883, recounts the story of Jeanne, a young aristocrat, who struggles to keep her dignity (and sanity) in the face of an ever-philandering husband and, afterward, a spoiled, spendthrift son. A Life is also a portrait of the lack of options even wealthy women faced in 19th century France: Jeanne can do very little to fight back and seems destined to be betrayed by her husband, her female best friend, and the mores of her times, which gave license to the male on every occasion.

Brizé chose to shoot his film in a 4:3 aspect ratio, accentuating the claustrophobic sense of Jeanne’s repressed and constricted predicament.

His editing abruptly interrupts the intentionally slow pace of the narration with brief, out-of-time impressionistic scenes which isolate the defining moments of Jeanne’s unfullfilled life. The director chooses to portray the passage of time not as a continuum but as a succession of repetitive gestures broken by unpredictable and unsettling turns of events.

The directing style may seem to share little with Brizé’s previous The Law of the Market (La Loi Du Marché), which dealt with present-day unemployment. However, both films demonstrate the power of economics to shape people’s everyday choices (or lack thereof). Both show their well-meaning protagonists brought down by the appalling cruelty of their existences. Traumatized, they become apathetic, masochistic, self-destructive.

In The Law of the Market the protagonist could perhaps escape the horror of the marketplace by quitting his job. In A Life leaving her husband and marriage is not a viable option for Jeanne. Her social status would be forever compromised, even with a sizeable dowry.

Brizé’s agile transitions between past and present through flashbacks and reiteration, within the context of an apparently classical period reconstruction, manipulates film language in an original and unexpected way. His choice to assign the actors a slightly modernized version of de Maupassant’s period dialogue gives the story a timeless quality. It also adds resonance for contemporary viewers to the excellent performances of the entire cast, especially Judith Chemla as Jeanne: her acting is a marvel of restraint and unspoken sorrow.

Edited by Gerald Peary