Reviewed by Drew Ninnis
Director: Martin Provost
Screenplay: Martin Provost, Marc Abdelnour, René de Ceccatty.
Runtime: 132 minutes.
Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet, Catherine Hiegel.
Viewed as part of the Alliance Française Film Festival, 2014.
Plot: Loosely following the biography of French author Violette Leduc, this gripping drama charts her rise from selling produce on the WWII black market to acclaimed First Wave feminist icon and writer. Intersecting with the lives of luminaries such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Genet, Violette’s development as a writer is overshadowed by the figure of her mother and her indeterminate sexuality, in a culture that was only beginning to liberate itself from the scars of conflict and oppression.
Review: Martin Provost’s Violette is an exasperating film to watch, which forms part of its charm and a great degree of its excellence; conveying the complexity and truth of a character with an extremely difficult psychology, without alienating the audience or their sympathy. Emanielle Devos’ performance as Violette Leduc is nothing short of spectacular; a performance which convinces you that Devos is Violette, and that any interviewer encountering the cast during promotion will themselves confront the impossible Leduc. Devos brings nuance to the most nuanced of characters; the script and direction support her in breathing life into the author that moves behind some of the most confronting and beautiful of texts.
Just like de Beauvoir’s patience with Violette, this is a film which deeply rewards the patience of the audience with the slow but rich narrative that unfolds. Violette brings a significant and important voice to audiences that may not be familiar with the author, her work, or the perspective she offers through this challenging biography.
The film opens with Violette in a loveless marriage with her homosexual husband, Maurice Sachs. An established author, but also a charlatan, his demands on Violette strain their relationship. This recreates a sort of possessiveness that pervaded Violette’s childhood, but their respective sexualities and professional activities also creating a deep alienation. Violette must sell goods on the black market to support Sach’s writing; each page of which he demands she read and approve every night, returning from her life of supporting him. Separation is quick to follow; and Violette relocates to Paris. The film derives much significance from portraying the grim, war economy that Violette must navigate to make ends meet – as rationing, and the black market, continue well after the end of hostilities. She must face down everyday indignities; a theme the film uses well to create sympathy with the character.
Everything about Violette is deeply comprehensible; making her obsessive behaviour all the more understandable and uncomfortable. Back in Paris, she pursues a former music teacher she had a lesbian affair with, unsuccessfully. She meets Simone de Beauvoir, a figure utterly unconcerned with Violette until she reads her work and decides to encourage her. Her first steps in the literary world attact the attentions of Jacques Guérin, an industrialist who becomes an ardent fan, and that of Jean Genet who seems to be the only individual who fully understands her condition (having had a gruelling early life himself). Violette is the perpetual outsider looking in, the fan on the fringes who deeply wishes to be a celebrated writer herself. The film deftly deploys quotes from Leduc’s body of work; most notably, L'Asphyxie (In the Prison of Her Skin) andLa Bâtarde. Her words are by turns startling and enchanting in both their eroticism and their deep emotional power. Throughout, Violette remains the most difficult and emotionally demanding of individuals – shaped through a past only hinted at, although made manifest with the arrival of her mother. Catherine Hiegel’s performance as Berthe Leduc is possibly the only element that rivals Devos’ own artistry, baring their past relationship and bringing it to the fore within a tiny number of scenes and lines.
Literary success is slow in coming to Leduc; and anyone who has agonised over their own future will sympathise with Violette’s fits of jealousy and despair. Having bared her life and her intimate experiences in such a painful way, Violette is further hurt by the world’s large indifference to them. She is sustained by de Beauvoir’s support, but almost alienates it through her possessiveness and jealousy. The part of de Beauvoir is deftly written – conveying her intelligence and integrity, while also indicating her coldness. The same is true of the characterisation of Genet; who within the film becomes the mischievous schoolboy he was not able to be during his youth. A beautiful note is sounded on the death of Jean Paul Sartre, allowing a truly sad and intimate moment to occur between de Beauvoir and Violette.
Ultimately, Violette’s story is a beautiful one. She finds liberation in the French countryside and a means to live with her difficult past, through authorship and escape. The cinematography of the film alternates between this light and shade; casting wartime in the grey-blues of a grim morning, while lingering on the golden sunlight of the French countryside. Through this – as well as the script, performances, and subtle direction – it makes a difficult character comprehensible. It also prompts the audience to walk out of the cinema wanting to encounter Violette Leduc’s work for themselves; and for this the film in invaluable.
Rating: Four stars.