DIR: Martin Provost • WRI: Martin Provost, Marc Abdelnour, René de Ceccatty • PRO: Miléna Poylo, Gilles Sacuto • DOP: Yves Cape • ED: Ludo Troch• DES: Thierry François • MUS: Hugues Tabar-Nouval • CAST: Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet
Martin Provost’s Violette (2013) charts the life of French writer Violette Leduc (Emmanuel Devos) from her exile in the French countryside during World War II through to the publication of her most famous work, La Batarde, in 1964. This, like previous works by Provost, focuses on female experience and, like his 2008 film Séraphine, is a biographical portrayal of a female artist.
While the film is divided into chapters, the majority of which own the name of an influential person in Violette’s life, these characters appear and engage with one another throughout, and so the divisions function more as both a nod to the literary theme and as indicators of influence rather than actual defined, compartmentalised sections of the narrative.
Leduc’s story from birth into adulthood is one of rejection, frustration, loneliness and unrequited love. The film, while taking a forward trajectory recounting her experiences from her thirties onwards, is simultaneously retrospective as a result of Violette’s life being painfully and relentlessly influenced by her past. She begins to write her experiences down following encouragement by the infamous French writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py) with whom she lives in exile and trades on the black market.
While this appears to be the only contribution of value that Sachs makes to her life, a chance visit to one of his friends further justifies his role. This is where Violette encounters and steals Simone De Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay, thus prompting her to approach De Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) with her own unpublished literary offering, and starts her on the uncertain but ultimately life-changing road to finding both herself and her place as a revered and respected author.
While De Beauvoir’s belief in Leduc’s talent and capacity to advance the cause of feminism through female literary endeavour sees her champion her work and induct her into esteemed intellectual circles, her attention does not extend to either an emotional or romantic attachment. This proves to be the source of much pain and anguish for Violette who is clearly in love with and highly dependent upon her mentor.
Indeed, De Beauvoir is portrayed as a cool, even icy character who keeps others at a distance, and whose relationship with Violette, as she perceives it, is something of an intellectual transaction whereby she has identified talent and promise, and furthers it for the good of literature and the female cause. However, Violette’s behaviour and personality perhaps make this an essential response. Indeed, during one isolated instance in which De Beauvoir breaks down and opens up, Violette quite predictably fails to offer words of comfort, instead thinking of her own feelings on the matter, and this sees DeBeauvoir revert to her former coolness. While perhaps diluting one’s perception of the purportedly strong relationship between the two women, it is easy to see why it may have been necessary for De Beauvoir to keep this difficult person close, yet at a remove.
Violette is a somewhat sympathetic character, but she is simultaneously portrayed as difficult, selfish, and hard to please. Her incessant hand-wringing and inability to psychologically surmount her illegitimacy, her troubled relationship with her mother, and her emotional rejection by De Beauvoir and others can prove somewhat challenging in a film of 139 minutes, especially when her life makes great strides for the better and she continues to find reasons to despair and be dissatisfied.
Despite her mother Berthe (Catherine Hiegel) cutting a formidable dash and holding the burden of responsibility for Violette’s low self-esteem and loveless childhood, there are occasions when she is caring and attentive to her daughter, and Violette’s inability to either acknowledge or allow herself to enjoy the maternal tenderness she has been so lacking further demonstrates her complexity and contributes to the, at times, perplexing viewing experience. When a character declares, “I’m scared of dying and sorry for being in the world”, it is difficult for the viewer to envisage any progression. However, DeBeauvoir makes her best endeavours, declaring, “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere. Writing will”.
If both Violette and DeBeauvoir are for the most part difficult to warm to, they are nevertheless intriguing characters who are the subject of excellent performances by both Devos and Kiberlain. In addition, there is much pleasure to be found in the beautiful exposition of both Violette’s natural surroundings and the act of writing itself. She seems to find solace in immersing herself in both, and as a result these scenes prove the most enjoyable, not only because they are visually striking, but they show an anguished character experiencing the happiness any viewer would desire for her.
As with any biopic, certain parts of the character’s life can only be alluded to, and Provost’s film certainly has this writer interested in learning more about its troubled protagonist and her works. If Violette can be challenging at times on account of Leduc’s outlook, and unnecessarily long at 139 minutes, its rewards lie in its visual beauty, exposition of the art of writing, and intriguing subject matter.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Violette is released 3rd October 2014