Timeless Tale: Stéphane Brizé dissects 'A Woman’s Life'

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Stéphane Brizé based A Woman’s Life, his tender but brutal portrait of a 19th-century minor aristocrat, on Guy de Maupassant’s novel Une Vie. In both novel and film, Jeanne discovers that the man she’s chosen to marry is both cruel and unfaithful, but she refuses to pander to cynicism, even while her life descends into misery. Beautiful and unsettling, the film lets moviegoers experience Jeanne’s claustrophobia but never asks them to abandon their own point of view. Brizé recently spoke to Director Talk.

Director Talk: You have a very subtle way of dealing with the horrible things people do to each other. This film exemplified that, and your previous film, The Measure of a Man, exemplified that. How do you achieve such a restrained but powerful message?

Stéphane BrizéTo be very honest, I have zero imagination, but I am a very good observer. With that, I try to watch the lie. A lie is more interesting than the idea of the lie.

DT: Let’s talk about the way you structure time in the film. You start out with a number of sequences from Jeanne’s late adolescence. You then cut to Jeanne twenty-five years later and the audience realizes the beginning of the film is actually a flashback. Then you return to the original time frame. It’s a very effective way of dealing with time.

SB: In the book, the forty years are perfectly chronological. But the tools of Maupassant are not mine, so to re-create a vertical time I had to use another tool. When Jeanne is twenty and suddenly she’s fifty and suddenly she’s twenty, you create with a very cinematographic tool a vertical non-time. It is very interesting to see that in a non-time—she was twenty and suddenly fifty—you can put all the time you want. It’s a cinematographic tool that re-creates the sensation you feel in the book. It is the most complicated, incredible discovery, which I made in this film: how to speak about time. It’s very, very interesting to perceive that we can fix time with non-time.

DT: In the film, as in the book, Jeanne is given the choice to marry, making this an existential rather than a sociopolitical film. How did the fact that you were making a film about Jeanne’s choices rather than her social situation influence the choices you made?

SB: I chose that book because it is not about women’s condition in the 19th century. It’s much more universal and timeless. The book speaks about the relationship of a woman with life. Even if it is in the 19th century, it speaks about me, who is a man, about you, about everybody. Everybody was a Jeanne, and everybody becomes an adult. The film speaks about that.

It speaks about the difficulty of becoming an adult. Jeanne refused; she can’t become an adult. It is my link with her. When I was twenty, I can remember I had this difficulty. But in the film, it is not a difficulty: It is impossible for Jeanne to change her point of view. This can create a very, very strong story.

Jeanne’s family is not representative of the model rural family of the 19th century. In the book, the father likes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, so he’s a modern man. When Jeanne is being courted, her parents ask her, “Do you want to marry this man? You can say yes, you can say no.” But we can see that in the two very important moments of the story—first, when she has to decide to choose a husband, and then when she decides whether or not to leave him—the person who decides instead of Jeanne is her mother. So this young woman, Jeanne, is in quite the same situation as a young woman now whose parents have a strong responsibility in their daughter’s decisions. So it speaks about everybody, even now.

More than that, because for me it’s not enough to make a film, I was very interested in one thing. This story, like my previous film, The Measure of a Man, speaks about the difficulty of illusion. I think that we live at a very, very crucial moment of our world story: We live at the end of illusion. With Trump in the White House, it is the end of our illusion.

DT: Agreed. In terms of the film, period pieces can be very stodgy and heavy. But the handheld camera in your film puts the audience in the very moment the action is happening.

SB: It was very difficult to fight against the images I had from older period pieces, always with very beautiful dresses, very clean dresses, very beautiful traveling in Cinemascope. All these images were poison for me. I wanted my film to be like a documentary of the 19th century. I wanted to film Jeanne like a documentary. The question of a documentary was a point I always made on set. Where can I put my camera to re-create life?

My answers came from The Measure of a Man. Without The Measure of a Man, I could not have made A Woman’s Life. It was an incredible experience that doing The Measure of a Man, which is a contemporary film dealing with modern social problems, gave me many answers for directing A Woman’s Life. You can see the link between the two films. Another strong link is the fact that the main character is at the very middle of the story, always on the screen. In Maupassant’s book, Jeanne is not always in the story, but in my film, she is. We are always with her, like in Measure of a Man. All the time you are with them, they become the path of the plot.

DT: I adored The Measure of a ManLet’s talk about the way you direct actors, because both performances—Judith Chemla’s in this film and Vincent Lindon’s in Measure of a Man—are just so outstanding.

SB: Directing actors means choosing actors. If you choose the right actors, you don’t have to direct them. I don’t tell them many things, but I told them, “I’m making a documentary about you. The fiction is the script.” In other words, everybody will believe you are the character, so now I want to film what you are.

These are the rules on my set. If they accept, OK. If they want to play, it won’t be OK. I want them to be. Just that. I don’t want them to act. I want them to be themselves.

DT: You write, and you’ve also acted in a few films. Do these skills intersect with your directing at all?

SB: I went to drama school when I was twenty for three years, but I could see at that time that I simply wasn’t an actor. I played very small characters in my first two short films, so my career was so short that it’s impossible to say I was an actor. Psychoanalysis was much more important for me for erecting characters. I would not be here without Sigmund Freud. I would be dead.

DT: Can you talk about working with Antoine Heberle, your director of photography, especially in relation to conversations about using the 1.33 format?

SB: The DP didn’t choose the format. It was my choice at the very beginning. Before we started, I tried to shoot in Cinemascope. I thought 1.33 was the best format, but I thought I’d try something else. Immediately when I saw the scenes in 1.33, I knew it was the right decision, because it speaks about the claustrophobic feeling of the piece. The 1.33 format translates this for Jeanne. I didn’t have to speak about it; the format spoke about it to the audience. All the choices I make speak about the psychology of the character.

Released by Kino Lorber, A Woman’s Life opens today in New York at the Lincoln Plaza and Quad cinemas, with national rollout to follow. The author thanks Keaton Kail and Susan Norget, Susan Norget Film Promotion, for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2017