A Woman’s Life Gets Arty Filmmaking Right


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 (VersaillesCasanovaA Very Long Engagement), and she was nominated for a César (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for her work. Let’s take a look:

A Woman's Life (2016)

Jeanne wears lots of cotton prints when working with her father in the garden.

A Woman's Life (2016)

And yay for hairpins! They used lots!

A Woman's Life (2016)

There’s a LOT of these kind of low-necked, short-sleeved dresses, which always reads like a modern, jeans-and-t-shirt approach to the era to me — although yes, you do see short sleeved day dresses in fashion plates. I don’t know! I do like the print!

A Woman's Life (2016)

Bucolic times in the garden with her servant/friend.

A Woman's Life (2016)

I’m guessing it’s the 1810s-20s based on the fashions shown on Jeanne and her mother (left). I’d love to be able to show you the painting of Jeanne’s mother when she was young, because unlike the usual ahistorical hideousness, they actually did a great job making it LOOK RIGHT for the period – holy crap!

A Woman's Life (2016)

Mom’s heydey was clearly the 1780s-90s, so her hair is curlier and fuller on the sides of the face than was fashionable for the 1810s-20s — a nice touch.

A Woman's Life (2016)

A cute spencer jacket for being wooed…

A Woman's Life (2016)

After being married, Jeanne’s wardrobe gets more dour.

A Woman's Life (2016)

And there is mourning to be worn.

A Woman's Life (2016)

I think Trystan needs that mourning coach! (Behind the scenes shot, hence the normie in the background)

A Woman's Life (2016)

Jeanne makes friends with another noblewoman, a dead ringer for a young Lena Headey…

A Woman's Life (2016)

The friend’s (Gilberte) dresses are generally in silk, while Jeanne’s are more in cotton. I loved this scene, where Gilberte is trying to talk Jeanne into having a fashion plate dress made up.

A Woman's Life (2016)

More silk, plus beaded lace, on Gilberte.

A Woman's Life (2016)

Oh but when things get bleak, Jeanne’s wardrobe matches.

A Woman's Life (2016)

And when things are happy, her colors lighten.

A Woman's Life (2016)

Jeanne: “FML.”

A Woman's Life (2016)

A beautiful Indian-style woven shawl on Jeanne.

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?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

8 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    Haven’t seen it. But will try to find it. But the costumes seem to convey Jeanne’s mood, money & social class really well.

  2. Melinda

    Read the novel, and when you say it’s not the typical happy ending love-romance story of a young baroness, well to say the least, sometimes the story gets so painfully real that I wanted to throw out the window the book! If the most brutal story line is portrayed in the film too, then I don’t recommend it for animal protectors at all! But about costume accuracy, the story starts in 1819, when the almost 18 years old baroness is going home from seminary, and at the end of the novel she’s an old lady trying to navigate in a brand new Paris, changed wholy by industrial revolution. In the novel clothing plays a big part, the way Jeanne looses everything her wardrobe changes a lot too. But, a few decades ago there was a TV flick adaptation (french I guess) of this novel with wonderful biedermeier clothing!

      • Melinda

        According to Kendra’s reply, there’s no animal brutality in the movie, but I don’t understand why they cut out the Paris scenes? No budget for early 19th century city view CGI?

  3. Black Tulip

    As I scrolled down to the first pic of Jeanne and her father, my immediate thought was, “Hairpins! Yay!!” You’ve ruined me for watching historical dramas, ruined me! :)