Violette Movie Review

Featuring: Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Catherine Hiegel, Olivier Gourmet, Olivier Py, Jacques Bonnaffé
Director: Martin Provost
Writer: Martin Provost

2013-14 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival season dates:
Somerville: 3–9 March, 7.30pm

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: The intensity and length could be demanding for some, but the superb crafting and performances are more than ample reward.

Traces the personal and creative development of provocative French feminist writer Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos), whose influences included Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) and Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé).

Biopics about writers can be problematic as cinema. Shots of an author hunched over a typewriter while a well-known excerpt from a novel is read in voiceover, for instance, are clunky and worn, and do not make for exciting viewing. Such clichés are kept to a minimum in Voilette. Chapters are used as a narrative structural divider, each allotted to a figure significant in stages of Leduc’s literary and personal life, but other typically literary devices are avoided. The focus here is Leduc as character, and appropriately so, since she writes in blood, sweat and tears. That is, her work, while in novelistic form, was strongly autobiographical; her life fed her art and probably vice versa.

Indeed, writing is not so much an imaginative venture as a form of therapy for Leduc. In the beginning of the movie, her faux ‘husband’, homosexual writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), urges her to write in the hope that she might find solace in self-expression, rather than burdening him with her many woes. The end of the relationship leaves her with writing as her only safety valve and marks the genesis of her literary career.

With her first manuscript completed, she stalks Simone de Beauvoir and eventually plucks up the courage to ask her to appraise her work. De Beauvoir is impressed with the raw honesty, courage and daring of Leduc’s work, and takes on a vital role as supporter and mentor. Aside from self-esteem and other gnawing personal issues, Leduc is struggling to make ends meet, her income as a black marketeer in food having dried up as the post-war economy recovered.

As their relationship develops it becomes ever more complex, clouded by Leduc’s sexual attraction to de Beauvoir and envy of her success. De Beauvoir, for her part, admires if not envies Voilette’s fearlessness in artistically mining extremities of personal experience no other female writer has dared incorporate in their work. There is a sense that Voilette is her literary alter ego. De Beauvoir’s primary motivation in maintaining the relationship is not so much friendship, it seems, as to push Voilette to risk exposing the very core of her being in realising her literary potential. De Beauvoir, perhaps, has too much to lose in terms of career status and reputation to court the sort of self-confessional controversy she encourages in Voilette’s work. Fascinating stuff, regardless of historical accuracy.

As are the portrayals of Voilette and de Beauvoir. Voilette is one of those unfortunates who yearns so desperately for love that she is unlovable (at one stage de Beauvoir remarks that it is not possible to be a friend of Voilette’s). Her grasping dependency and predisposition for self-pity and histrionics are unappealing qualities, but Emmanuelle Devos infuses in her tormented, damaged, self-sabotaging character a promise of something better in store that is intriguing. It’s an uncomfortable, sometimes irritating and often disturbing ride, but one we stay on out of a compelling curiosity as to where it will end up.

Sandrine Kiberlain is a convincing de Beauvoir, severe, tough-minded and unemotional, yet with an underlying humanity that surprises without compromising the credibility of the character. De Beauvoir’s mourning of her mother’s death is a case in point, a pivotal moment that prompts Violette to reappraise her troubled relationship with her own mother (wonderfully played by Catherine Hiegel).

Subversive gay writer and poet Jean Genet is depicted as a kindred spirit of Leduc’s, declaring her his “sister”. He’s predictably but enjoyably dissolute and eccentric.

The film is long and intense, meaty but lean – there is little fat that could have been trimmed. It is essential viewing for those interested in feminist French literature of this period. Others might find it a bit demanding, but it is beautifully filmed, written and performed, yielding more than ample reward for effort.

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