Martin Provost’s last film Séraphine (2008) demonstrated the director’s joy of writing a fictional account of Séraphine Louis, a female artist living on the fringe of French society after World War One. Now, in Violette, Provost returns to similar ground to write and direct a graceful, fictional biography of the French counter-culture novelist Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) and her friendship with the pioneering feminist author Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain).
The story begins in France 1942, and Leduc is living with her friend and fellow writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py). In her present situation, Leduc continually feels rejected, disenchanted, sexually confused and completely lacking in self-confidence. Maurice soon runs away to Germany, but tells Leduc to continue writing about her compelling life. Whilst working on the Parisian black market, Leduc spends her spare time writing her first novel L’Asphyxie (or Imprisoned in My Skin) and gives a tattered manuscript to a woman she much admires: Simone de Beauvoir.
Simone adores Leduc’s life and writing, finding in it a piece of rare, audacious genius, implying that this is what truly inspires de Beauvoir to write her feminist publications. De Beauvoir, of course, found far more fame than Leduc by laying out the core ideas of the second-wave feminist movement. However, the film goes on to suggest that de Beauvoir exploited Leduc’s past life in order to make her point; Violette is the one who has truly lived out the harsh realities of a woman in post-Second World War France (her being an illegitimate child, having undergone an abortion, her being sectioned). Provost presents a truly fascinating argument.
Leduc is thrown into the Parisian philosophical and literary scenes, meeting French cultural giants such as Jacques Guérin (Olivier Gourmet) and Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé), who inspire her to write about her past in more realistic and brave detail. Intriguingly, Jean-Paul Sartre (the philosopher and de Beauvoir’s lover) is mentioned many times in the film, but never seen. He is referred to by de Beauvoir only as ‘Sartre’ and is presented as a shadowy controlling presence.
What’s more interesting is that Provost decides not to present Paris in the romanticised, Hollywood manner, which has become the clichéd norm. In Violette, we are instead presented with Leduc’s bedroom, cafés, restaurants and particular streets and buildings, all of which have a thoroughly grey and gloomy feeling. This is a far more realistic visualisation of post-war Paris, one believes.
Kiberlain plays de Beauvoir perfectly – calm, serious and principled, her sentences are fiercely interesting and Provost’s film offers an opening into the mind of, arguably, one of the greatest feminist thinkers of the twentieth century. While Devos is meant to make Leduc look ugly and frumpy (hence the huge prosthetic nose), in actual fact, the mixture of joy, madness and sadness that she brings to the role is eccentrically hypnotic, and quite simply wonderful.
Oddly enough, the film’s weakness is that too much attention is focused on Leduc herself and not enough on her relationship with de Beauvoir. The film’s most engaging scenes are those in which both Leduc and de Beauvoir are casually chatting in cafés or restaurants and discussing ideas, or engaging titles for novels, and various publications, including the most famous title of the feminist movement: “Do you have a title for it?” asks Leduc; Simone responds “I’m not sure yet… ‘The Second Sex’, perhaps…” Another issue is its running time of 132 minutes, quite a few scenes could almost certainly have been cut out. Yet, there is plenty here to take pleasure from in Provost’s film, especially if you’re a literary or feminist boffin.
Overall, Violette is a light and enjoyable film with perfect acting, and a thoroughly engaging script, particularly for those who are interested in the portrayal of women immersed in the cultural struggles of post-war France.