I never would have heard of A Woman’s Life (2016) if not for British Airways in-flight entertainment, so merci BA! A French adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant novel (Une Vie, which, sorry, I’d never heard of), I was nervous about starting this sucker up because I could immediately tell it was going to be arty and atmospheric. Now, I can appreciate arty and atmospheric, but when I’m on an 11-hour plane ride? GIVE ME PLOT.
So I was immensely pleased to find that yes, this film is DEFINITELY arty and episodic and impressionistic, yet managed to keep up a fascinating chain of events! Things happen! And they’re not what you (or at least, I) would expect! I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll just tell you that the story focuses on a minor noblewoman (Jeanne) as she begins and then lives her adult life.
Things I really liked about the story, without giving away plot points: I liked that Jeanne was a Baroness, but not of the 10,000 servants variety. There were tons of minor nobles/gentry across Europe who weren’t eating off gold plates, but instead doing their own gardening and making do with one servant, as does Jeanne and her family. I also liked that this in no way was a conventional romance or happy ending. Yes, Jeanne gets married, but she is hit by harsh realities of life that she has to face, and watching her go from naive girl to world weary woman was satisfying — not in a “yay for suffering!” way, but in a “yes, real shit happens to real people, and life isn’t easy” sort of way.
The book was published in 1883, but the film begins in the Empire (Regency over in Britain) era. I have no idea if that’s true or not to the story’s original setting! But it works in the film given that the story takes place in country homes, so the light cottons help to bring home Jeanne’s practical lifestyle. Over time, you see the costumes change appropriately to the era — not much of the 1830s is glimpsed, but you definitely see the 1840s, and the dour-ness of the era works well given certain plot points.
The costumes were designed by Madeline Fontaine (Versailles, Casanova, A Very Long Engagement), and she was nominated for a César (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for her work. Let’s take a look:
Sadly, despite scouring the interwebs, I can’t find any images from the 1840s-set scenes!
Any chance you’ve seen Une Vie? What’s your favorite arty take on historical costume film?