The French love their 19th century literary adaptations, and it must be said that, more often than not, they screw it up beautifully. Because, if anyone hadn’t noticed, 19th century literature tends to be rather dull, with all its flowery writing and moralistic standpoint. Cue A Woman’s Life, a most disturbingly dull account on… a woman’s life, adapted from the Maupassant novel of the same name.
The film follows the life of Jeanne, a victim of the lying world around her. Jeanne lives in a rosy bubble and cannot cope with the fact that people lie, and the film narrates a number of such events to cover that point. At each lying fiend, Jeanne becomes more and more miserable (financially and spiritually), until she is covered in bad make-up that’s meant to make us think she’s now old.
I couldn’t help but think about the Marquise de Merteuil, that court ice queen, so masterfully played by Glenn Close in the 1988 version of Dangerous Liaisons, and Jeanne’s very antithesis. Here was a woman to admire: one who outsmarted all, who understood society’s expectations for her to play the victim while victimising others, who was basically a badass and wouldn’t take no for an answer, because she ran the game. Looking at defenceless Jeanne just drown in sorrow for 120 minutes was irritable at best: I really hoped she would rip a page from the Anna Karenina book and throw herself in front of a passing vehicle, soon. But that moment of joy never came.
I can understand the points the book would have made at the time, placing the woman as a victim in a world where they had no voice. But to depict a woman so meekly is nothing short of an insult, since it denies her the free thinking that would make her eventually decide to just take on a lover like everyone else did, and have fun with it. I’d like to think that, in real life, a 19th century Jeanne would have done just that, whilst still batting her eyelids in innocence so someone like Guy Maupassant may take pity on her and write a novel about her woes. That the filmmakers can’t see past that, that they won’t bring to today’s sensibilities a story of yesterday, makes for a bore of a film.