Director: Stéphane Brizé | 119 minutes | drama | Actors: Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau, Swann Arlaud, Nina Meurisse, Olivier Perrier, Clotilde Hesme, Alein Beigel, Finnegan Oldfield
And they lived happily ever after. Or not? In ‘Une vie’ little of an ideal image remains and the full focus is on the merciless reality of life. In 2016 ‘Une vie’ premiered at the 73rd Venice Film Festival. This earned director Stéphane Brizé a FIPRESCI press award. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Guy de Maupassant, a French writer from the 19th century.
It is not superfluous to mention that De Maupassant was an ardent supporter of naturalism, an art movement from the 19th century where there is no glorification, but an honest as well as pessimistic representation of everyday life is the starting point. Characteristic of naturalism is that the sobering, disappointment and downfall of a particular character is central. And let this just apply to Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla).
The story takes place in the 19th century. After completing training in the monastery, Jeanne returns to the modest castle of her lovely parents, Baron Simon-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Baroness Adélaide (Yolande Moreau). The aristocratic family soon meets Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud). At first glance, a polite, charming young man that Jeanne seems to fall for. Once married, it doesn’t take long for Julien to show his true nature. While he is away from home a lot, Jeanne becomes bored and lonely. When she finds out that hubby is not at all as loyal as she envisioned, illusion gives way to misery. Successively Jeanne has to deal with deceit, illness, loss, guilt and manipulation.
All events – mostly tragedies – take place from Jeanne’s point-of-view. Because life is viewed through her naive eyes, the viewer is, as it were, one with Jeanne throughout the film. The many close-ups have a strengthening effect and ensure that attention is drawn to the changing emotions. Nothing is romanticized, a certain curiosity arises as to what else to expect for Jeanne and whether all misery will (ever) end. Hoping for that one bright spot on the horizon.
‘Une vie’ follows Jeanne over a period of about twenty years. Rather than a chronological story, Brizé makes reasonable use of a cinematographic tool to construct the passage and bridging of time, namely flashbacks and flashforwards. It is the flashbacks in particular that keep Jeanne going, they consist of cherished memories of the happy and carefree moments in her life. The flashforwards give a glimpse into the (near) future, whereby the result that the past has had on Jeanne does not bode well.
The contrast between the pleasant and gloomy moments clearly influences the atmosphere and is visualized by color and setting, among other things. In rare, good times the sun shines brightly, Jeanne’s infectious smile meets the viewer and especially the flowery backyard and the beach are locations of happiness. In bad times there is hardly any flooding (as if all the pain and sorrow of Jeanne falls from the sky) and rooms in the chilly castle are only lit by burning candles or the fire from the fireplace. The more painful a situation is for Jeanne, the more erratic it seems to become. Costume drama in this case can be taken very literally, given the mood sensitivity of Jeanne’s (beautifully detailed) robes: bright versus dark.
Brizé has adhered to the ‘rules’ and his adaptation hardly deviates from the literary work of de Maupassant (and naturalism). Although the story is set in the 19th century, it is a timeless and universal story. The choice to translate the whole to modern times would probably have provided a little more originality and creative freedom for the director. Nevertheless, all the doom and gloom in the film – thanks in part to Chemla’s strong acting – will have made the pessimistic Guy de Maupassant a happy man. In any case, ‘Une vie’ does justice to the genre drama and perhaps a bit cliché, but after rain comes sunshine.