From the very first moments of director Martin Provost’s new film, the eponymous Violette is a figure at once both tragic and compelling. Violette is as honest as it is visually stunning, sharp with intimate moments and dreamy artistry that form an unusual but apt portrayal the life of this groundbreaking feminist.
Whilst many biopics can be removed affairs, strained with dual pressures of capturing an extraordinary life without passing judgement, Provost’s portrayal of Leduc, the critically-acclaimed post-war French author is enthralling, rich with detail and emotion. The portrayal of Violette is as complex and sharp as the feminist writer herself, delving into her life in all its bizarre and tragic circumstances over the span of the 20 years from the end of World War Two to the publication of her first bestseller in 1964.
Emanuelle Davos is striking as the gifted but troubled Violette, tormented by her constant need for affirmation and her inability to allow those she loves to exist separately from her. Provost, whose 2008 film “Seraphine” mirrors many of the issues raised in “Violette”, stretches Leduc’s life out in a series of six chapters, each one dealing with a new relational obsession in her life, weaving the subtle threads of her destructive desire for love.
The film opens in the days preceeding the end of WWII, where Leduc survives as a black-market dealer, posing as the wife of gay writer Maurice Sachs. Amongst the terror of surviving in famine-riddled Paris, Leduc experiments with writing, but it is after reading Simone de Beauvoir’s “She Came to Stay” that Violette is compelled to compose her own exposition. “L’Asphyxie” (“In the Prison of Her Skin”) is based on her relationship with her emotionally withdrawn and controlling mother, her memories of childhood and her experience of sexual abuse.
Violette seeks out Beauvoir as a mentor, and in doing so, forms one of the most significant relationships of her life, one around which the film derives momentum. The contrast of the restrained and thoughtful Beauvoir (played by Sandrine Kiberlain) and the undisciplined Violette, a woman afire with desperation, is wonderfully telling and altogether bleak. Beauvoir introduces Violette to her circle of friends, many of whom are progressive writers and philosophers, including Albert Camus, Jean Genet and Jacque Guerin.
Whilst the film emphasizes Leduc’s triumph as a female writer, one of the first women in literature to portray honestly and openly a women’s experience of abortion (as well as divorce, same-sex affairs and her sexual awakening), the narrative resonates more hauntingly as a tightly wrought exploration of her obsessive need to be recognized, to be appreciated, to be comforted. Violette’s almost-mantra of “alone again, always alone” is the consistent thread upon which the film is strung, and casts light on her relationships with men, women, her mother, her readers, her publisher, her friends. She is consumed by this need, one which both motivates her craft as a writer and destroys her sense of self and the few healthy relationships she has.
Provost does not deny the creation process of a writer, creating languid and sensual shots in which we consume the act of writing. Leduc’s struggle to find her voice as a writer is intricately linked with her relational developments, as these feed back into her work, for ill or for good.
In the moments when Violette is at her most volatile and dramatic, the film never stoops to theatricality. Whilst she wails at de Beauvoir, hits her mother, and abuses strangers for arbitrarily appreciating her, Provost creates the sense that we are also seeing her at her most private. Every moment of pain is laid bare, and the film is all the richer for it.
The blend of Violette’s deep sense of entrapment with her desperate outbursts form a wonderfully varied and nuanced portrait of this groundbreaking female writer.