THIS at once unflinching and sophisticated period piece from director Stéphane Brizé zeroes in on one woman living a perceivably privileged life in early 19th century Normandy and reveals that it may not be as rosy as it seems.

Using Guy de Maupassant’s 1883 novel Une Vie as its basis, the film centres on 19-year-old Jeanne (a mesmerising Judith Chemla) who is well-educated and cared for, living a seemingly idyllic life with her parents in a palatial countryside estate while also being married to nobleman Julien (Swann Arlaud).

From there it takes us on a fairly intense and at times hard-to-grasp journey over a quarter of a century as it explores how the society in which she lives seems practically designed to stifle body, mind and soul, thrusting upon Jeanne disappointments and tragedies – from romantic disillusionment to marital abuse to the estrangement of her son – that she is expected to accept as she continues with her assigned duties as a wife, daughter and mother without any real say in the matter.

Brizé shoots the period drama in a manner that seems to care not for what’s expected of the genre. He invites us into the costumed world aware of our conditioned expectations of sweeping romance before revealing its true, almost documentary-like stylistic intentions.

It doesn’t tend to make a big deal of the passage of time or significant events, an approach which some may find hard work, flickering back and forth on a whim and interspersing the narrative with fleeting visual moments that feel like memories or wishes that pop into the main character’s mind.

Instead it focuses on the aftermath and emotional impact on our central character and how mistakes and uncontrollable situations affect her behaviour and outlook. The director employs close-ups on faces and specific actions to create a rare period drama intimacy, utilising a claustrophobic aspect ratio that accentuates the rawness of the piece, as well as exemplifying both the way Jeanne increasingly feels and the subjugated status thrust upon women generally at the time.

It’s sometimes a little too ponderously vague and unnecessarily erratic to truly drive home the effect of its themes in the same way as the fairly similar but far superior Lady Macbeth. But there’s a confidence to the filmmaking and a bubbling power that’s impressive, making for an unashamedly demanding yet involving and thought-provoking mood piece.

A Woman's Life is in UK cinemas from today