Adapting the eponymous novel by Guy de Maupassant, Une vie is a textured film that may just be too dour for its own good.
Charting Jeanne’s (Judith Chemla) descent from landowner’s daughter to a poverty-stricken widow, Une vie is ripe with tragedy. The narrative also serves as a sly critique of a capitalist society where only men learn the art of making money, leaving women with little autonomy over their fate.
The real aim of the film, however, is not social commentary but character study. Stéphane Brizé has the narrative flow back and forth in time to give the film a unique rhythm. Employing a fragmentary style not too dissimilar to Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, Brizé successfully creates an emotionally rich narrative as Jeanne’s sun-dappled memories clash violently with her overcast present. A particularly potent example of the latter sees a despondent Jeanne playing checkers with her now elderly father. This technique makes the story engaging, yet as the film draw towards its conclusion, the cruel tragedies that make up Jeanne’s life devolve into self-parody.
Of particular note here is the portrayal of Jeanne’s son Paul (Finnegan Oldfield). After running away to England, he writes letters begging his mother for large sums of money to help make his fortune – funds which are increasingly scarce. Eventually, his pestering becomes unintentionally comical, as the audience has grown accustomed to constant assaults of misfortune; and while Chemla’s performances is above reproach, Brizé’s constant barrage of closeups depicting her pained expressions also begin to grow wearisome.
The problems never overwhelm Une vie as its tragic emotions ring true, thanks to Brizé’s filmmaking style and the central performance from Chemla. The film falls short of greatness, but its depiction of financial decline is sublime in its sympathy.
CAST: Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau, Swann Arlaud
DIRECTOR: Stéphane Brizé
WRITERS: Stéphane Brizé and Florence Vignon (screenplay), Guy de Maupassant (novel)
SYNOPSIS: The story of Jeanne du Perthuis des Vauds’s life between the ages of 18 and 45 in the early 19th century: a hypersensitive woman, overly sheltered and in search of the absolute, Jeanne is unable to face up to the harsh reality of the world, a story of unconquerable mourning for the lost paradise of childhood.