A scene for A Woman’s Life (Kino Lorber)

At the beginning of Stéphane Brizé’s (The Measure of a Man) new film, young Jeanne (Judith Chemla) savors a pleasant if not expansive existence as a baron’s daughter in 19th-century rural Normandy. The gentle, trusting nature-lover tends to the garden with her parents, happily tramps along the sunny local hills and coasts, and enjoys a laugh with the family’s servant girl. But by the film’s end, she will be betrayed, bitter, and broke. A Woman’s Life, adapted from a Guy de Maupassant novel, charts her slide into disaster with a hushed, pensive air that builds to panic as Jeanne’s world closes harshly around her.

Young Jeanne’s parents (Jean-Pierre Darroussin and Yolande Moreau) care for their daughter deeply, although parental love comes with a sense of claustrophobia and mild coercion. No doubt her mother feels she is doing the right thing by urging Jeanne to accept Julien (Swann Arlaud), a ferrety suitor from a penniless noble family. The union is the story’s original sin, kicking off multiple catastrophes. Once he has ensnared his naive bride, Julien turns out to be a right tosser—bossy, condescending, and cheap. Jeanne tries to sustain the romance, willing herself to adore her husband and only lover, but Julien quickly grows bored with the marriage. His infidelities will rupture not just one but two of Jeanne’s cherished friendships and lead to violence in an episode the movie handles with fatalistic understatement.

Nagging issues of class and money, and the worries that attend living beyond means, stalk the film and its heroine. So does the blighting effect of bad advice from the powerful; Life’s authority figures issue wrong-headed commands right and left without a twinge of doubt. From being someone lied to, Jeanne becomes someone who lies to herself, as her son grows up a spoiled monster who shamelessly bilks her for money with a series of preposterous excuses. It’s a measure of her need for love that she keeps giving until there is nothing left to give.

Handheld, almost documentary-style camera work makes Life’s dialogue feel overheard and real, and exchanges where only Jeanne is visible create an uncomfortable sense of her talking into a void (which in a way she is). Long scenes of Jeanne afoot in nature, remembering happier moments and trying to forget bad ones, reflect time moving slowly yet slipping away fast. Actress Chemla ages convincingly, her youthful, open face sharpening and hardening as her character suffers loss after loss.

Life is a movie of silences and longueurs, so it comes as a shock when Jeanne collapses into screams of rage, frantically looking for money that isn’t there. However, she’ll come face to face with a force that may renew her faith. Coming to a resolution on that question, though, would not be the way of Life, which circles a life in ruins with quiet, open-ended empathy.

Directed by Stéphane Brizé
Written by Brizé and Florence Vignon, based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant
Released by Kino Lorber
French with English subtitles
France/Belgium. 119 min. Not rated
With Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau, and Swann Arlaud