Written and Directed by Martin Provost
In French with English subtitles
Premiered September 6, 2013 at the Toronto Film Festival
Review by Stephen O. Murray
July 3, 2014.
Jacob Stockinger contends that Violette Leduc (1907–1972) was “arguably a stronger stylist and more candid erotic explorer than Marguerite Duras; a more astute psychological observer than Nathalie Sarraute; and a more dramatic chronicler of the woman’s condition than Simone de Beauvoir.”
Martin Provost’s biopic on Leduc, Violette, is long, strikingly shot (by Yves Cape’s), and contains outstanding performances by Emmanuelle Devos as the emotionally needy author.
Catherine Hiegel plays her mother, Berthe, and an imperious Sandrine Kiberlain [Alias Betty] as a very severe and rigorously self-controlled Simone de Beauvoir, who did much to encourage and support the writer while resolutely resisted her as a sexual partner (both writers were bisexual), a resistance that seems easily understandable given how demanding and whiney Leduc was.
Devos is more physically attractive than Leduc was (Leduc said she had “an ugly mug”), but Beauvoir was not concerned with physical appearances, being in a very long-term relation with the remarkably ugly Jean-Paul Sartre.
In the movie, de Beauvoir tells Leduc, “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere.” Writing her self-lacerating story, as Beauvoir recommended, did. Leduc wrote frankly about her experience having an abortion and of her sexual desires, including those for Beauvoir, who calmly parried them.
La Bâtarde (The Bastard, 1964) won the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary award in France, and became a best-seller. Its success made it possible to publish the lesbian romance Thérèse and Isabelle, Leduc’s boarding-school romance that she had been forced to cut from Ravages in 1955. The 1966 novel was adapted to the screen in 1968.
Neither Sartre, who praised Leduc’s work, nor Albert Camus, who published her first book, appears in the movie, though Jean Genet [Jacques Bonnaffé] does. Genet was Sartre’s pet outrageous writer, as Leduc was Beauvoir’s. At least in the movie Genet gives Leduc advice on financial matters. She had earlier lived with the gay writer Maurice Sachs [Olivier Py] who got her started not only in writing but writing as a substitute for sexual intercourse with a mentor who sexually rejected her.
Violette is a rare movie about a writer that shows the writer writing, as well as showing some of what she wrote. Though I didn’t see the need for chapter markers with the first names of other characters, I did not think the movie dragged.
I felt sorry for Leduc’s loneliness and sexual frustrations (her mother broke up her adolescent romance with Isabelle) and admired Beauvoir’s patience with Leduc’s stalking and her unwavering commitment to get Leduc to write and to get the work published against the squeamishness about female sexuality of publishers.
Martin Provost’s 2008 film Séraphine, about painter Séraphine Louis, won the prestigious César award for best film.
Posted on the outinjersey website, 3 July 2014
©2014, Stephen O. Murray