With a powerful performance from Emmanuelle Devos, Martin Provost’s Violette is a stylish biopic of influential author Violette Leduc and the power of the female pen.
The Mandarins by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Martin Provost seems to have a weakness for the artist’s awkward relationship with both their art and society, first with Séraphine which starred the ever brilliant Yolande Moreau as the obscure artist Séraphine de Senlis, and now Violette Leduc with another French screen veteran, Emmanuelle Devos, as the slightly better known French author. And while these kinds of gynocentric biopics have often been the domain of female filmmakers, such as Agnès Merlet’s Artemisia, Anne Fontaine’s Coco Avant Chanel or Julie Taymor’s Frida, it’s perhaps no wonder that in Provost’s case, both his heroines should be women. For who can reveal the anxiety of walking the painful road to artist, author or actor (as Provost himself was before turning to directing) better than the bâtarde or housekeeper who isn’t even capable of believing in her own promise? And while Violette’s success relies on a steely strength, refusing to let the dream die, still it doesn’t come at once. Taunting its devotees with the tantalising promise of a life free from drudgery. Second Sex or otherwise.
It’s wartime and Violette (Emmanuelle Devos), caught buying sausage on the black market is forced to spend a night in prison. Living in the Norman countryside with her pretend husband, writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), it’s the last straw that sends an apoplectic Violette into a frenzy of writing, pouring out her anger and bile under an apple tree. Abandoned, she returns to Paris where, dealing on the black market, she is able to fend for herself, and carry on writing. Until finally, she has her manuscript for L’Asphyxie finished. Lying in wait for Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) with a bunch of mimosas, she delivers her emotional outpouring to her Paris apartment, a daring event that marks the beginning of an unrequited love, a mentorship and a friendship that would last for decades.
Divided into chapters that mark the stepping stones in Leduc’s journey towards success, fame and happiness, Violette neatly defines the most important people and places in Violette’s life – Maurice (Sachs), Jean (Genet), Jacques (Guérin – a rich perfumer), Berthe (Leduc – the mother she relies on but has always felt neglected and unloved by), Faucon – the village in Provence she stumbles upon and where she finds her writing feet, and La Bâtarde – her sixth autobiographical work, and the one that finally brought her success. And while some of these chapters end neatly – with, for example, Violette’s angry and honest outpouring at Jean Genet during a rehearsal of Les Bonnes, there is one person notably missing in the shape of Simone de Beauvoir.
While Simone de Beauvoir, as incarnated, majestically and austerely, by Sandrine Kiberlain, is a tour de force of determination, and discipline, of curt politesse and slamming doors, she meets her nemesis in Violette Leduc – a passionate, feisty and frenzied woman daring to lift the lid on female sexuality. It makes for an intriguing relationship – the prim and proper but passionate de Beauvoir keen to harness Violette Leduc to her cause, the mentor encouraging her protégée, distant even while she pays her literary endowment or hospital fees. While emotional maelstrom Leduc falls desperately in love with de Beauvoir, flying into rages about her amorous escapades and becoming desperately jealous of her fame and the success of her Prix Goncourt winning The Mandarins. And yet, for the solitary and wild Leduc, it’s perhaps her most stable relationship to date.
With a great standalone performance from Emmanuelle Devos, and a deliciously arch performance from Sandrine Kiberlain, Violette is a very evocative portrait of a fascinating moment in French literary history. And it’s all the more powerful that Provost chooses to exclude Existentialism’s founding fathers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus from this literary undertow of outsiders and deviants. Nevertheless, while Violette makes for an informative biopic of Leduc, her cinematic journey is sadly underdeveloped – wallowing for the most part in self-centred histrionics and unrelenting self-pity. And as a gulf emerges between Leduc’s risqué writings and her desolate life in a rented room in a Paris flophouse, Violette marks the unequal distinction between life and art.
Violette is released on 3rd October 2014 in the UK