Women’s lives before feminism

Florence Pugh appears in <i>Lady Macbeth</i> by William Oldroyd, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Laurie Sparham.

It’s difficult to turn great works of literature into great films. But that doesn’t stop many from trying, particularly when themes still resonate in modern times.

One is the subordination of women, which attracted a wide range of notable authors in the 19th century and created such memorable heroines as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart (The House of Mirth).

All were adapted several times for the screen and stage during the 20th century and this is continuing.

France’s Guy de Maupassant (died 1893) and Russia’s Nikolai Leskov (died 1895) both produced unforgettable pre-femininist women, who feature in this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.

Maupassant’s Une vie (1883) was the first of his handful of novels and was adapted for the screen by French director Alexandre Astric in 1958 with Maria Schell in the lead role. Maupassant is better known for his short stories, which have been the basis or have inspired some 220 films, including, by some accounts, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Stéphane Brizé’s new version, translated as A Woman’s Life, traces the fluctuating fortunes of Jeanne Le Perthuis des Vauds (Judith Chemla) through marriage and motherhood.

Born into an aristocratic landowning family in 19th-century Normandy, her life is dominated by men during her brief times of joy but mostly ones of misery.

Her father is a kindly patriarch throughout, allowing her an idyllic upbringing in a pastoral paradise surrounded by parental indulgence and offering plenty of leisure.

As the only heir, her future is seemingly guaranteed with financial security (always a major theme of 19th century novels), household assistance and a suitable but impoverished husband (Swann Arlaud).

But infidelity and its tragic outcome are compounded by her ungrateful son and his wastrel ways. These are also common themes of the time and are explored in detail as every thread of Jeanne’s dignity is pulled away.

Chemla’s performance is riveting throughout as she demonstrates the extent of her subjugation and helplessness despite her obvious strengths.Only occasionally do events get out of control, usually not of her making, and bottled-up anger is the pervasive mood.

By contrast, the heroine of Lady Macbeth, based on another novella, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (1865), reacts violently and without remorse to her circumstances. She, too, enters an upper class marriage with a faithless husband.

Like Une vie, Lady Macbeth has been previously filmed (by Polish director Andrzej Wajda) and also turned into a Soviet-era opera by Shostakovich.

The Russian setting of a sawmill business has been moved to rural Victorian England in British director William Oldroyd’s version, scripted by Alice Birch.

Again, this is a superb character study of a woman (Florence Pugh in a debut role), who is the virtual prisoner of her indifferent husband (Paul Hilton) and imperious father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank).

She is left alone in the cold and inhospitable mansion with only a maid for company. Her emotional needs unsatisfied, she turns to one of the farm’s worker (Cosmo Jarvis) in an affair that has tragic circumstances.

Ratings: A Woman’s Life — mature audiences. 119 minutes. Lady Macbeth — restricted to audiences over 16. 89 minutes.

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Nevil Gibson

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