Starring: Judith Chemla, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Yolande Moreau
Directed by: Stéphane Brizé
BBFC Certificate: 12
Running Time: 120 mins
A sort of Tess of the d’Urbervilles in French, this version of Guy de Maupassant’s novel is beautifully structured, exquisite to look at and packs a powerful punch. Some may find it slow or deliberately obtuse at times, with its fractured structure, time leaps and characters who are not immediately introduced, but patience reaps rich rewards.
Set in the early 19th century it starts as a French Jane Austen, with Chemla’s Jeanne, the daughter of a successful farmer, being offered the hand of aristocracy in marriage. She reluctantly accepts, and finds brief happiness, but hubby turns out to be no Mister Darcy. He is in fact a bully, moaning about her burning too many candles and too much wood, even though it is her family paying for most of it.
Even worse, it transpires, he is something of a ladies’ man, even getting the maid pregnant. Around the same time Jeanne herself gets some happy news, but also a life-threatening fever.
From here Jeanne’s life turns into a Thomas Hardy novel, with deaths, natural disasters and financial irregularities driving her slowly into a state of utter despair. Through all this however she never forgets the beauty of her life, a patch of blue sky, a spring flower, the simple joy of growing vegetables, a dip in the sea, a joyous picnic with her son and wonderful dog.
It’s a mournful, slow-paced film to be sure, but the use of period music and the fantastic photography is always spot on. There are several themes to untangle here; the uselessness of the church, the sins of the father being visited on the son, the helplessness of farmers in the face of cruel banks, but they are all threaded through delicately and never forced.
The performances too are spot on, especially Chemla, at times playing a character who is furiously angry and unlikeable, to the point of being bitter, but she never loses your attention. The supporting cast are her equal too.
Overall Verdict: de Maupassant’s book is brought to the screen with admirable seriousness and conviction. It’s a handsome, utterly absorbing period piece that takes its sweet time to cast its spell.
Reviewer: Mike Martin