I have just attended a screening of La vie d’une autre femme (2012) as part of the annual French Film Festival at the Irish Film Institute (IFI) in Dublin and feel that there is much to discuss in this film in connection to the theme of our most recent workshop in October, namely, Motherhood and Work. La vie d’une autre femme marks the entry of established French actress Sylvie Testud into the domain of directing. Loosely based on the novel by Frédérique Beghelt (2008) similarly entitled La vie d’une autre, Testud’s film deals, inter alia, with the trauma of memory loss and the quest to recuperate the original self. The film focuses on a forty-year old female protagonist, Marie Speranski (played by Juliette Binoche), who awakes one day to discover that she cannot remember anything of the previous fifteen years of her life. Her last memory relates to her initial encounter with her husband Paul Speranski (played by Matthieu Kassovitz) at a time when she is depicted as being young and carefree. Bit by bit Marie has to piece together her identity and comes to the painful realisation that the woman she has grown into has nothing in common with the self that she remembers. Originally from a modest background, she is now an extremely wealthy and successful business woman: at the beginning of the film we see her talent being recognised by Paul’s father, head of a very important finance firm, who invites her to join their company. She is also a mother to a child she cannot recall having and on the brink of divorce from a marriage that, similarly, she cannot remember breaking down.
While this conflict between a ‘before’ and ‘after’ self brought on by Marie’s amnesia can be interpreted from a number of perspectives, one of the most obvious being the gap between the realities of adulthood and dreams of youth, it was the depiction of the working mother as someone who had betrayed her ‘true’ identity that was, for me, at the heart of this film. As Marie begins to gather information from those around her about the last fifteen years of her life, the spectator is made aware of a kind of moralising experience that is taking place for the protagonist. We learn that she has risen to the top of the company for which we saw her being recruited at the beginning of the film and that her talent as a business woman is in demand internationally. However, in rising to the top of her career, there is a sense that she has abandoned her ‘feminine’ values and that she has neglected the place where society considers her to be most needed, that is, at home with her husband and child. The world of work and power is portrayed as a masculine domain (the only other women in her workplace are secretaries and receptionists) and there is a feeling in the film that by being so successful Marie has become a ‘like a man’, and that this, in turn, has devastating consequences for her marriage and homelife. First of all, it appears that she has usurped her husband, Paul, who, unlike his wife, has been struggling in his career as a comic book artist. While Marie’s work takes her out of the home to a luxurious executive office (situated on a floor full of workers over whom she has complete control), Paul works from home in a little atelier at the top of the house. Marie’s mobility juxtaposed against Paul’s immobility has thus disturbed the ‘natural order’ of the home and can only end badly. Similarly, becoming ‘like a man’ has impacted on her ability to mother - she makes a mess of the cooking, doesn’t know how to play her child’s games properly and can’t get him to school on time. Of course, this could also be explained by her amnesia, but I think that there is more to it than that alone. Moreover, in opposition to the female professional who has forgotten how to mother is the character of the nanny in the film who is presented as being more in harmony with the child’s needs than Marie. A further way in which the film depicts the ‘masculinisation’ of Marie that takes place when she enters the corporate environment lies in the change that occurs in her appearance: she cuts her hair short and adopts the standard business uniform of the power suit. When her amnesia takes hold, Marie, of course, resumes her former, more feminine style, puts on a pretty summer dress and talks of growing her hair again. This is greeted positively by her son (and also her husband, I feel, who begins to notice her again), thus revealing a nostalgia in the film for a more traditional image of the mother, a mother who is gentle and warm, as opposed to the trouser donning female executive who is depicted as cold and distant.
What ensues, then, in La vie d’une autre femme, is a kind of corrective narrative where Marie realises how much she has sacrificed for the sake of her career and subsequently strives to restore the ‘natural order’ in the home by tending to her child and winning back her husband. A domestic lifestyle is presented as much more rewarding than a high-powered executive position. It is also interesting to note that during this period of amnesia when Marie cannot really go to work (because she can’t remember what it is she actually does there) and we see her as being more present in the home, her husband’s career finally starts to take off, thus suggesting that a ‘natural’ balance is being restored. By the end of the film, Marie has decided that she needs to make some changes in her life. In a conversation with her father-in-law and owner of the company (Mr Speranski), Marie is informed that she can have a transfer to another office. In this same conversation, Marie is simultaneously criticised for not valuing her family enough by the very man who recruited her in the first place. This would seem to suggest that it is acceptable for women to work only when it doesn’t interfere with their responsibilities in the home – we should recall that when Mr Speranski initially hired Marie, she was single and childless. In the end, Marie decides to leave Paris for a fresh start in London. Although she is not giving up her job, her relationship to work and ambition has clearly been altered. She is insistent that her son will come with her, and the film closes with the feeling that Marie has ‘learnt a lesson’ and that a resolution has been reached through the protagonist’s rediscovery of her nurturing side.
To conclude, it would appear that the rather depressing message propagated by Testud’s La vie d’une autre femme’ is, as Ann-Marie Slaughter’s widely-read article published in The Atlantic earlier this year states, that ‘women can’t have it all’ – a career at the top cannot be combined with the demands of caring. In fact, the very title of the film points to this idea, that is, that the lives of a working woman and nurturing mother/wife are simply not compatible – they belong to two very different women. Furthermore, the emphasis that the film places on rediscovering one’s ‘true’ self in the film suggests that the mother who works is a mother who is guilty of ‘bad faith’. Keeping all of this mind, it is fair, I feel, to say that this particular film is punitive to women who wish to combine motherhood, marriage and work as it really only presents two options (the ‘good stay-at-home mother and wife’ vs. the ‘bad working mother and wife’) without considering how a balance might be reached. It could, I suppose, be argued that Marie’s decision at the end of the film to change jobs but take her son with her is, perhaps, an indicator of a third way. However, this is where the narrative stops, hence, there is no way of knowing whether or not a third way is actually viable.