by Matt Levine
Violette belongs to that disappointing subgenre of timid, respectable biopics about bold, abrasive artists. In Sylvia (2003), Pollock (2000), and Walk the Line (2005), for example, groundbreaking mavericks like Sylvia Plath, Jackson Pollock, and Johnny Cash are given the middlebrow treatment, their tumultuous lives softened into a rousing tale of the redemptive nature of art. Similarly, in Violette, the mid-20th century French author Violette Leduc is turned into a symbol for feminist iconoclasm, though this Cliff Notes version of her life embraces the sound and fury while neglecting her brilliance and pathos. This unashamedly carnal, emotionally effusive writer came to represent a turbulent postwar French society, turned into a symbol for feminism and existentialism by peers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, and Albert Camus. There is plenty of material here for an affecting portrayal of how psychological wounds (and sociopolitical duress) can inspire cathartic art, but Violette is too scholastic and reserved to really make an impact.
Director: Martin Provost
Producers: Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto
Writers: Martin Provost, Marc Abdelnour, René de Caccetty
Cinematographer: Yves Cape
Editor: Ludo Troch
Music: Hugues Tabar-Nouval
Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet, Catherine Hiegel, Jacques Bonnaffé, Olivier Py, Nathalie Richard
Premiere: September 6, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 13, 2014
US Distributor: Adopt Films
At least the film’s setting, which alternates between Paris and the picaresque village of Faucon from the early 1940s to the mid-60s, provides an engrossing backdrop. From the classical French architecture to the well-researched costumes, Violette is immersed in historical atmosphere, at least visually if not contextually. The film begins in 1942, after Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) has married homosexual writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), mostly as a way to persevere through wartime poverty together. Their marriage is predictably disastrous, as the bisexual Leduc fails to understand Sachs’ lack of sexual interest in his new wife. Such feelings of loneliness and rejection are even more poignant if you’re aware of Violette’s backstory: born to an unmarried servant who never tried to hide the fact that Violette was an unwanted child, then sent to a boarding school where she leapt into passionate relationships with a fellow schoolgirl and a female music teacher (who was fired for the affair), Leduc’s youth and sexual awakening were founded on the need for intense emotional connection. These early years are conveyed to the audience later in Violette—primarily through dreamy flashbacks which are a little too Cinemax-gauzy to land an emotional punch—but the film’s emotional arc might have been more effective if the chronology had been a little more straightforward.
Credit her aloof, sexually estranged husband with one thing: he constantly encourages Violette to vent her frustrations and passions through writing, as he himself does with middling success. The first scenes in which Violette puts pen to paper, drifting into reveries while she gazes at leaves dancing in the wind, are an evocative ode to the trance in which artists find themselves during the moment of creation. This romanticist belief in the power of artistry, however, becomes detrimental later in the film: as Leduc writes aggressive, heated literature about female sexuality and personal empowerment, the simplicity of the imagery (in which Violette sits in a cramped apartment and scribbles furiously) does not evoke the complexity of her feelings or her prose. It is difficult to turn a lone individual writing at a table into dynamic cinema, and director Martin Provost does little to stylize such moments.
In any case, Violette keeps writing and moves to Paris after the war (Maurice has cavalierly traveled to Germany, where he is killed by Nazi forces). After finishing her debut memoir, L’Asphyxie (known as In the Prison of Her Skin in English), she thrusts it into the hands of Simone de Beauvoir, the cause célèbre of ‘40s French literature and champion of existentialism and feminism. De Beauvoir fashions Leduc into a trailblazer for female sexuality; as she writes frankly about her lesbian relationships, her previous abortion, and the torrential lust she experiences towards members of both sexes, her work attracts the castigation of French censors and the indifference of timid publishers (at least initially).
Leduc’s graphic sexual prose and intense emotional confessions became even more candid in later novels like Ravages (1955) and La Bâtarde (1964), which was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt and finally brought Leduc the fame (or notoriety) she had sought for so long. Yet Violette focuses more on the author’s fervent bonds (they can barely be called friendships) with some of French literature’s most renowned figures. The feelings of exclusion and alienation she had experienced in her youth persevered through her adult years as a need for emotional validation and sexual gratification. Leduc makes desperate advances to the perfumer and publisher Jacques Guérin (Olivier Gourmet), though she’s aware of his homosexuality; when he rebuffs her, their relationship crumbles until he offers her a lucrative publishing contract. With the famed writer Jean Genet, Leduc develops a fond brother-sister relationship, though she repeatedly endangers it by ridiculing him in public for delusions of betrayal.
Leduc’s most intense relationship by far, though, is with Simone de Beauvoir, the groundbreaking, bisexual existentialist-feminist who wrote The Second Sex (1949) and The Mandarins (1954) to great acclaim (we indirectly witness the creation of these works in Violette). Leduc’s love for de Beauvoir is clearly an obsession: she shows up at de Beauvoir’s house unannounced, demanding validation either sexually or artistically; she checks her apartment daily when de Beauvoir is overseas for months, unsure when she will return; she fantasizes about her often and irrationally accuses her of infidelity, publicly and shamefully. Yet it is de Beauvoir’s detachment from Leduc (and her repeated admonishments that writing will lead to the sense of completeness Leduc so aggressively seeks) that compels Leduc’s fiery, unabashed writing, giving credence to the theory that great sadness and longing may lead to brilliant, cathartic art.
Imagine this tempestuous life story as directed by someone like Catherine Breillat or Michael Haneke: what a haunting, thunderous film that might have been, detailing how sexual desperation can lead to artistic liberation. However, in dutifully checking off the traumas and emotional outbursts for which Leduc became known, director-cowriter Martin Provost fails to find her complex humanity or the ferocious honesty that made her work so special in the first place. Violette’s scope is ultimately muddled: at 138 minutes, it attempts to catalogue Leduc’s numerous humiliations and glories (from a tryst with a much younger man to a hospital visit for an undisclosed illness to her fractious relationship with her mother), but it also feels incomplete and skin-deep. The film covers only two decades of her life and offers little more than a cursory exploration of the writer’s psychological vulnerability. It’s hard to know exactly what drew Provost to the project, as he skims over Leduc’s unapologetic sexuality, her desperate need for gratification, the uneasy changes taking place in postwar French society, and even Leduc’s writing itself. Mostly, Violette seems to aim for a by-the-numbers biopic, which is almost an injustice for such an outsized, trailblazing artist who avoided conventionality at all costs. Even Leduc's sexual desperation is visualized by a tasteful montage observing de Beauvoir's eyelashes, fingers, and gaping lips. The only sparks of aesthetic ingenuity arrive as Leduc’s memories and fantasies conjured during the writing process are portrayed to the audience, though these reveries are silly and self-indulgent as often as they are affecting.
As Violette, Emmanuelle Devos helps to make the film seem less predictable and familiar. The marvelous French actress who has repeatedly worked with Arnaud Desplechin (you owe it to yourself to see her in Kings and Queen) is unafraid to make Leduc seem petty and insufferable, though the pain she exudes prevents her (most of the time) from being irredeemably obnoxious. Some of the supporting cast also provides fine, subtle performances (especially Jacques Bonnaffé as Genet and Catherine Hiegel as Leduc’s mother), while others fail to excite. As Simone de Beauvoir, Sandrine Kiberlain offers a shallow characterization, though it’s not entirely her fault—Provost is mostly uninterested in positing her as anything other than a symbol for burgeoning feminism.
But Violette Leduc was such a fascinating personality, and her writing so disarmingly honest, that the film remains intermittently captivating. Several narrated passages from Leduc’s novels ably reveal how great a writer she really was: La Bâtarde, for example, opens with, “My case is not unique: I am afraid of dying and distressed at being in this world. I haven’t worked, I haven’t studied. I have wept, I have cried out in protest… I cannot think about things for long, but I can find pleasure in a withered lettuce leaf offering me nothing but regrets to chew over.” In prose like this, it’s easy to see how Leduc’s depression and insecurity manifest themselves in explosive writing. But as is always the case with mediocre films about great writers, the question becomes: why not simply read her books instead of watching this movie?