I haven’t read Maupassant’s Une vie, but Alexandre Astruc’s film adaptation of it, provocatively retitled End of Desire in the U.S., is an exquisite though exceedingly strange fusion of Brontë (either Emily or Charlotte) and the gathering nouvelle vague in French cinema. Perhaps “fusion” is the wrong word, for the Gothic and contemporary (that is, late 1950s) elements feel juxtaposed rather than blended. The Rochester-figure that Julien de Lamare suggests belongs to a different time than his last mistress, Gilberte de Fourcheville, who is unsettlingly modern. Both are married; but, while Julien has strayed before, I believe that Gilberte is the love of his life. Julien is brusque with his wife, Jeanne (Maria Schell), who clings to the marital morality of someone in the late nineteenth century who is to the manor born—which she literally is. Jeanne cannot comprehend her husband’s infidelity; and neither can he.
The Lamares met in turbulence: a storm at sea in Normandy from which Julien rescued Jeanne. Their marriage seems as blissful as Julien can force himself to make it seem—for a very short while; then one day, without any sign to her of his discontent, Julien gathers up his clothes from their bedroom and moves to the bedroom across the hall—although my eyes must be playing tricks on me, as I am confused as to which bedroom is whose at this point. Julien begins an affair with Rosalie, his wife’s maid—her surrogate sister, Jeanne insists, thereby imaginatively compounding her sense of betrayal. Rosalie has Julien’s child; after they reconcile, Jeanne also has a child with Julien. However, Julien meets Gilberte—and is intrigued.
Gilberte’s husband exacts violent retribution, ironically bringing Jeanne equanimity. She has their son.
Claude Renoir’s color cinematography is both bleak and lovely.