Gervaise Macquart (Maria Schell) is a worried woman in the France of the mid-nineteenth century, because she may not be married, but she does have two children with a local Parisian man about town called Auguste Lantier (Armand Mestral) and frets that because of her physical handicap of a crippled foot she will have trouble keeping him at home. Those fears come to a head this morning when he has been out all night, and when he does arrive back, a little the worse for drink, she gives him a piece of her mind which he laughs off. Once she is at work at the laundry, she confides in a colleague that Lantier has probably been out with another woman, more than one, which causes the ears of an old rival, Virginie (Suzy Delair) to prick up...
Is this the first ever film to feature vomit? It's a hard luck life for the ladies of this world in director René Clément's adaptation, one of many French versions of Emile Zola's book, part of a series he penned that put him on the map as one of France's greatest novelists. Naturally, as with any nation's film industry which has a respected cache of literary works to plunder, he was adapted many times down the decades by filmmakers hoping some - OK, plenty - of that prestige would rub off on them, though in Clément's case he was already being fêted as one of the finest talents in his country's cinema during the nineteen-fifties, many believing he had hardly put a foot wrong since his breakthrough in the late forties, post-war years.
Therefore you could observe perhaps he was playing safe with this reverent retelling of a classic tale, not that it stopped the plaudits flooding in, though while at the time it was regarded as his crowning achievement, these days it's more his Patricia Highsmith adaptation Plein Soleil often proclaimed as his finest work, though that remains more of a cult movie than anything dreamed up for Gervaise. Prestige pictures such as this have been around since the medium's inception, so unless the filmmaker was going to offer something radical the best course of action was to stick close to the source in a deeply respectful manner, which was the case here with a special interest in highlighting the trials and tribulations of women past, and it is implied, present too.
Every time Gervaise thinks she has caught a break she finds it is a false dawn and the gloom descends once again, so after a massive brawl at the laundry between her and Virginie, who is the sister of the woman Lantier is in the process of running off with, including a bloody earring-ripping and a bare-bottomed spanking rather unexpectedly, our heroine finds herself alone in the world with two kids to bring up. Enter roofer Henri Coupeau (François Périer) who takes a liking to poor Gervaise and decides to make a good woman of her, leading to a marriage and one of the lighter hearted scenes where the wedding party visit the Louvre to celebrate but prefer to seek out the paintings with nudity out of boredom once they've got there. Then it's back to the misery.
After an accident at work, alarmingly portrayed by Clément, Coupeau is injured and turns to drink, which is the other running theme in the movie, that alcohol will bring no good to those who overindulge, both personally and to those around the imbiber. It may be the only thing that takes away the pain of suffering through lamentable lives, but it's a fool's paradise when everyone else has to endure the results of your selfishness, and with horrible inevitability events close in on Gervaise to send her to the bottom of a bottle too. But Clément does not blame her in the way he blames the feckless men in her life, which number the man who could really have made a positive difference for her, Goujet (Jacques Harden), but either she carried too much baggage by the time he was ready to love her or his criminal record was too much for him to bear and the promise of a way out falls away to nothing. There are no easy answers and some may find it moving, though in places it is too calculated for pathos, but the final shot of little Nana and her simple hope is a strikingly poignant image. Music by Georges Auric.