A Woman’s Life, directed by Stéphane Brizé, is the English title of a quiet French film, originally titled Une Vie. In it, we meet Jeanne (Judith Chemla, Camille Redouble), a young woman learning domesticity in 19th century France. Her life is unassuming – she gardens with her father, strolls with her mother, and shares a lighthearted, sisterly affection with her maid Rosalie (Nina Meurisse, Je Suis un Soldat).
The film is beautiful, filled with many delightful moments that made me ponder the more enchanting parts of the world. The deep roar of the ocean. Sunlight filtering down on a cloudless day. The sweet times between a mother and daughter.
A Woman’s Life brings Jeanne out of childhood and into womanhood, beginning with her marriage to Julien (Swann Arlaud, La prunelle de mes yeux) – a man whose gentle courtship and handsome face mask more unfortunate tendencies, emerging as years go by.
The darkness in Jeanne’s story is painful to watch, but it’s the kind that is true to real life. Her wedding night hurts. There’s no struggle, but it’s like watching a rape. She’s not against their union, but Julien’s not taking care of her and she’s confused and in a great deal of pain. That was, and is, a harsh reality for so many women. Then there are the inevitable parts of growing older – the betrayal of a friend, the marital squabbles.
I felt most similar to Jeanne when I realized that she shares my feeling of deep inner simplicity. Film heroines are so often larger than life characters like “bad girls,” warriors, or creators. But this is not that kind of film, and Jeanne is a more realistic heroine. She’s a straightforward woman who isn’t demanding or a big dreamer. She’s a thinker, a lover, a listener, and a caretaker with a goodness that makes it easy to cultivate empathy for her.
But even these seemingly small realities are dashed when her eyes are opened to how terrible and complicated the world can be.
Some friends will steal what matters most to you.
Some mothers hide things from their daughters.
Some husbands sleep around.
“Everybody lies, Father…everybody lies,” she exclaims to a priest with jaded astonishment. My heart hurt along with her because I too was that girl who was too fervent, open, and honest to lie. I didn’t realize my people, who I loved most, would ever lie to me. “I expected something different,” Jeanne brokenly adds. Sweet girl… me too.
I love the idea of taking two hours to watch a film that’s just a study of humanity. There’s nothing like a good period piece to open a window into a world that looks so different from my day-to-day life but feels so familiar in all the important ways. A Woman’s Life succeeded in that respect 100%.
But prior to any of that, my first impression of the movie happened before I even watched it – just from reading its title. You see, I’m a sometimes-kind-of-francophone, and the phrase “une vie” in French, even while the noun is feminine, doesn’t actually mean “a woman’s life,” just “a life.”
Interestingly, the “woman” bit was added on for the English-subtitled distribution. Thinking about this linguistic difference made me ponder the idea of what it means to study a life.
Often the default version of something is assumed to be male. The stick-figure icon of a human body is “he” unless a dress, something pink, or a bow is added. The narrator of a book is assumed to be male until otherwise specified. So it’s neat that this story in its original language didn’t specify. This woman’s life doesn’t have to be special, groundbreaking, or distinctive to deserve a film. No adjective needed.
At the same time, A Woman’s Life makes it clear that life for women often turns out very different from the lives of their male peers. So what does a woman’s life mean, then? The priest tells Jeanne that “man’s salvation lies in forgiveness.” But where does that leave women? Are we always to be the forgivers? The wounded? Somehow I don’t think so. At least, I haven’t accepted that as my lot in life. There is too much sunshine, too much ocean, to only dwell in the mud, tears, and deception.
A Woman’s Life is a beautiful, bittersweet reminder of the most euphoric and most heart-wrenching parts of life. Of how our lives are made up of a hundred thousand choices – and they all matter. Of how (as one wise woman tells another), “Life is never as good or as bad as you think.”
That’s life for you. A woman’s, or otherwise.