“A Woman’s Life” is Visually Beautiful But Narratively Dull

By Tyler Stevens, Contributing Writer

After premiering at the 2016 Venice Film Festival, where it competed for the Golden Lion, a prize that in the past has gone to films like “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Wrestler,” and in this film’s year of competition, “The Woman Who Left,” “A Woman’s Life” is finally coming to US theaters (admittedly in a small, two-theatre run at the beautiful new Quad Cinemas and the Lincoln Plaza theater) this May and promises a quiet, contemplative time at the movies for fans of international cinema and period pieces. 

A French-Belgian co-production written and directed by Stephane Brize, whose last film, 2015’s “The Measure of a Man,” was a big hit at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, A Woman’s Life is a quiet and fragmented drama set in 19th century Normandy and follows the life of Jeanne (Judith Chemla) as she grows up and experiences life for a woman in a very limiting and oppressive time, dealing with loss of innocence and an unfaithful marriage as time unfolds in front of her. 

It’s beautifully shot by cinematographer Antoine Heberle and is ultimately an undoubtedly mature film, one whose use of color, lighting, and period design deserve every praise and mention it’ll surely get, but the film fails to hold much of an interest beyond that. It’ll prove to be satisfying and pleasant for audiences who know immediately from the plot synopsis that this film is for them, but the chances of this reaching and pleasing a broader audience grow slimmer and slimmer as the film’s bloated two-hour runtime goes on, hitting dramatic beats that are few and far between and employing an occasional over-reliance on voiceover that undermines the gorgeous naturalism that Brize achieves in his direction.

Chemla’s performance, understated and occasionally heart-wrenching, is a fantastic piece of work that carries the film throughout nearly every scene, but the characters surrounding her feel half-baked at best and like afterthoughts at worst. It’s true that this is certainly a singular character piece, but by making her the only interesting character in the story, Brize stands Jeanne in a narrative wasteland from which she’s unable to escape, making the entire film an overlong and frankly dull affair.

As stated earlier, this is likely to please fans of a quieter, more mature sort of period drama, as its production design by regular Brize collaborator Valerie Saradijan and costuming by Madeline Fontaine (whose work is more likely to be recognized for her contributions to 2001’s “Amlelie” or most recently for her Oscar-nominated work in Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie”) are exquisite and the narrative action and bombast is minimal, but for those who are seeking something a little deeper than your average deliberately paced period piece, there’s unfortunately not much to be found. 

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