Review: Une vie (2016)


Une vie (2016)

Directed by: Stéphane Brize | 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 remains of an ideal image 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 a fervent supporter of naturalism, an art movement from the 19th century where there is no question of glorification, but an honest and pessimistic representation of everyday life forms the starting point. Characteristic of naturalism is that the disenchantment, disappointment and demise of a certain 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 graduating in the convent, Jeanne returns to the modest castle of her lovely parents, Baron Simon-Jacques (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Baroness Adélaide (Yolande Moreau). Soon the aristocratic family is introduced to Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud). At first glance a polite, charming young man whom 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, boredom and loneliness strikes Jeanne. When she finds out that the hubby isn’t quite as faithful as she had 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 during the film. The many close-ups have a reinforcing effect and ensure that attention is drawn to the changing emotions. Nothing is romanticized, there is a certain curiosity about what else awaits Jeanne and whether all misery will (ever) come to an 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 narrative, Brizé makes reasonable use of a cinematic tool to construct the passage and bridging of time, namely flashbacks and flashforwards. It is mainly the flashbacks 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, where 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, among other things, by color and setting. In scarce, good times, the sun shines in abundance, Jeanne’s infectious smile meets the viewer and the flowery backyard and the beach are above all locations of happiness. In bad times there is just no mention of a flood (as if all the pain and sorrow of Jeanne is falling 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 can be taken quite literally in this case, given the atmospheric sensitivity of Jeanne’s (beautifully detailed) robes: colorful versus dark.

Brizé has kept neatly to the ‘rules’ and with 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 thing to modern times would probably have given the director a little more originality and creative freedom. Nevertheless, all the doom and gloom in the film – partly thanks to Chemla’s strong acting – must have made the pessimistic Guy de Maupassant a happy man. ‘Une vie’ certainly does justice to the drama genre and perhaps a bit cliché, but after rain comes sunshine.

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