Stéphane Brizé's marvellous adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's 1883 debut novel (Une Vie) centres on Jeanne (Judith Chemla), a young noblewoman who lives with her adoring parents – the Baron (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Baroness (Yolande Moreau) Le Perthuis des Vauds – at a Normandy château.
She and her family are soon charmed by the attentions of Viscount Julien de Lamare (Swann Arlaud), a neighbouring aristocrat of no particular means, and, we soon realise, no particular worth. Their whirlwind romance in conveyed in small gestures: hands almost touching, boating on the lake and a painful wedding night.
Whirlwind is something of a watchword for this inventive melodrama, which condenses into some 27 years into two hours, using daringly succinct, precise scenes, brilliantly spliced by editor Anne Klotz. The aesthetic is equally elliptical. Shot by Antoine Héberlé in Academy ratio, the presentation reinforces the sense of limited opportunities for the put-upon heroine, and the agitating notion that contentment might lie just beyond the boxy frame.
French heritage cinema seemed to peak in the 1990s when lavish costume dramas such as La Reine Margot and Ridicule emerged to keep Besson, Carax, Beineix and the Cinéma du Look kids in check.
A Woman's Life shares rather more DNA with such gritty English period cinema as Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights and William Oldroyd's Lady Macbeth. Instead of a grand establishing shot of a hedge maze, the gardens are muddy and covered in useful glass cloches. There are arguments about heating bills and, as Jeanne's spoiled ne'er-do-well son Paul (Finnegan Oldfield) grows up, structural repairs that cannot be afforded.
The drafty house is symptomatic of Jeanne's empty, lonely life. As with everything else in this masterfully subtle film, Judith Chemla (star of Camille Unwinds) mostly works in small movements as her character endures a series of misfortunes that will alternately enrage, sadden and delight the viewer. Garance Van Rossum's hair and make-up designs are similarly nuanced; there is no powdered hair or ageing prosthetics, just alterations in style. The experienced cast chip in with tiny changes in posture and manner.
French heritage cinema has never looked so winningly untraditional.