A biopic in fragments, Martin Provost’s Violette often feels like a manuscript with every other page torn out. The film chronicles 20 years in the life of French postwar feminist writer Violette Leduc by engaging in its own strain of formal deconstruction. Divided into chapters with subtitles named after the influential figures in Leduc’s life, Violette propels its subject from one moment of head-bashing writerly frustration to another, largely skipping over her off-the-page experiences and passions in favor of the moments when Leduc struggles to capture them in words.
This is a shame, because between the lines, Leduc had passion to spare. Raised in France during World War I by a mother who supposedly never wanted her, she suffered the heartbreak of doomed first love with another girl at boarding school, a bitter failed marriage, and a harrowing second-trimester abortion before becoming consumed by the need to record her experiences. In Paris in the 1940s and ’50s, Leduc thrust her manuscripts—and, less successfully, herself—upon Simone de Beauvoir, author of the landmark feminist treatise The Second Sex, and she became Leduc’s conduit to publishing success. A natural boundary-pusher, Leduc delivered frank depictions of sexuality and sin (French authorities censored her more explicit lesbian writings) and prickly theories on gender dynamics: “Women cheat, women suffer,” she says in her memoir The Bastard. “They used to be attractive so they smooth away their age. I shout mine aloud because I was never attractive.”
As Leduc, Emmanuelle Devos has a panicky, unconfident air, like she’s never ready to acknowledge her own talents. She also has a short fuse that manifests in different ways: begging friends to become lovers regardless of their sexual orientation, exploding at her mother whenever the two share close quarters. She has a constant believer in Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), who pushes her to develop every book idea, and even spots her an allowance when finances get tough. An early scene where Leduc first tracks down Beauvoir and begs her to read her unsolicited manuscript will be all too familiar to struggling writers. In later scenes, Leduc finds inspiration by dreaming vaguely about her past, imagining she’s wafting through her boarding school while she masturbates in a field in the French countryside. It’s all very delicate, like an academic study: The closest Provost comes to rebelliousness is when he insinuates that Beauvoir may have, in turn, had erotic fantasies about her protégé.
Though Violette spans decades of Leduc’s life, it occupies a grey area. Provost begins his film too late to recount his subject’s early, formative experiences, but ends too early to capture the true sweep of her influence. The movie is all valley, all lull. Leduc struggles, screams, then struggles some more. If not for the drops of information about her books being published (by Albert Camus, no less), it would be hard to discern much growth at all. It’s a brutal argument to make: that the most relevant information to convey about the life of an influential writer is the fact that she struggled early and often. This approach may seem philosophically appropriate for a movie about existentialists, but dramatically, it makes the film a bit of a slog.
Provost seems drawn to stories about troubled outsider female artists. He also directed the well-received 2008 film Séraphine, about the self-taught French painter Séraphine de Senlis, who worked as a housemaid and was exiled to a mental institution for the latter part of her life. Provost lends his subjects compassion and respects their individuality, too-rare traits for biography filmmakers. It’s often too easy to graft the boilerplate biopic structure (snapshots from the past, struggle, success, influence, famous people) onto a chosen subject, like a parasite attaching to its host. It’s admirable that Provost attempts something different in Violette, but only up to a point.