Violette was the opening title in a short season of films showing at Dean Clough, the arts facility housed in the famous woollen carpet mills in Halifax. The screenings by Reel Solutions under the banner ‘Cinegalleria‘ are held in the Crossley Gallery. Bill Lawrence of Reel Solutions chose Violette because he sees it as the kind of French film which is no longer getting the kind of release in UK cinemas that it deserves. Ironically in the same week it featured in the ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot featured in Picturehouse Cinemas. This gives the film a single showing in the chain’s weekly programme in a range of its cinemas. A few years ago Violette would have played for a week with two shows a day.
The screening was introduced by Alison Fell from Leeds University who outlined the unique profile of the writer Violette Leduc, the subject of this biopic. She told us that Leduc was a literary figure of importance in the 1950s who wrote about her own experiences in new and daring ways – unexpected ways for a woman at the time and as a consequence she fell foul of both the censors and the literary establishment.
I must confess that though I was looking forward to seeing Emmanuelle Devos as Violette, I was slightly concerned that one of the earlier films by director Martin Provost had been a biopic of the painter Séraphine de Senlis (Séraphine, France 2008). It looked like there were some similarities between the two women’s lives and though I had enjoyed most of Séraphine, I remember that I thought the director somehow lost the story towards the end of the film. I needn’t have worried that this would be the case with Violette.
The film narrative deals mainly with a twenty year period in Violette Leduc’s life from the time when she was in her mid-thirties, earning money as a black marketeer and aiding the resistance in 1944, up to her moment of triumph as a successful writer in 1964 with her novel La bâtarde. It is her struggle to become recognised as a writer in the intervening years that forms the main part of the narrative. The film suggests that Violette came across a copy of a book by Simone de Beauvoir during the war when she was living in a ‘cover’ arrangement with the gay writer Maurice Sachs. When she began writing in earnest she attempted to make a friendship with de Beauvoir, a seemingly cold and difficult woman who nevertheless felt compelled to help Violette, encouraging her writing and recognising its remarkable qualities.
In the interview below the director (and co-writer) Martin Provost describes Violette Leduc’s writing as autofiction – even though the term seems to have been coined in 1977, five years after Leduc’s death. In French literature studies it has been used to describe the marriage of autobiography and fiction. Violette Leduc wrote about her own sexual experiences and relationships as well as her struggles having been born ‘out of wedlock’. She did this in vibrant and explicit but nevertheless engaging language – so much so that her work was censored at the same time as being recognised by the French intelligentsia (or at least the coterie of de Beauvoir, Genet and Camus – Sartre doesn’t appear, which seems odd) as revolutionary in its representation of women’s lives. The narrative structure involves a triangular struggle between Violette and her potential supporters and the French literary establishment. But where de Beauvoir is steely in her resolve, Violette Leduc is both passionate about her work but also lacking in confidence and prone to undervaluing her own qualities. This is neatly presented in a scene in a bookshop when Leduc is trying to find her first published work on the shelves after de Beauvoir has got it into print via Camus – in a cheaper format that the bookshop doesn’t stock. I think that audiences who don’t know de Beauvoir (I had to look up her biography) might struggle at this point to understand her behaviour. Has she in some way ‘conned’ Leduc? No, I don’t think so. Her convent education and her Sorbonne degree at a time when academic Frenchwomen were rare, taught her to be disciplined and resolute. Violette is a very different person. There is a strong element of social class conflict in Violette’s dealings with Jean Genet and the parfumier Jacques Guerin (a wonderful comic turn by Olivier Gourmet) and there is a worry that Violette’s decline before her eventual rise might turn into a kind of ‘misery memoir’ narrative. It doesn’t happen because Provost is determined to treat Violette as a writer who should be given respect. But I do wonder if the film would work as well as it does without the two riveting central performances by Emmanuelle Devos as Violette and Sandrine Kiberlain as Simone de Beauvoir.
I like both these actors very much. Kiberlain disappears into the role – I was amazed to see how much she resembles photographs of de Beauvoir – and is utterly convincing. Emmanuelle Devos is a remarkable star actor. As this American blog entry asks, why isn’t she better known in the anglophone world? The writer answers his own question by suggesting that it is the conservative, and shrinking, distribution system for foreign language films. I remember first noticing Ms Devos in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and then going back to the same director’s 2001 film Read My Lips in which she starred opposite Vincent Cassell. She has also starred in films for Arnaud Desplechin and IMDb credits her with 76 acting credits in a career of less than 30 years. In terms of acting technique and performance skills I’m sure there are British and American actors who are similarly equipped but Ms Devos has several advantages in what is after all a visual medium. She has a body and a face (augmented in this film by a prosthesis) that are distinctive and they are deployed with terrific effect in Violette. The character bemoans her own unattractiveness and Devos can do despair as well as she can do disdain – and every emotion between them. I think she is compelling and always watchable. She’s also fearless in presenting her own physicality. This a performance not to be missed and Violette is a film that deserves much more exposure.
The performances help the film to overcome the usual problems associated with biopics and period films (here a certain kind of ‘heritage film’ that French cinema shares with the UK). This biopic works because the time period is reduced to 20 years or so and the narrative has a clear structure associated with the writer and the people with whom she had the closest relationships. Provost actually presents the narrative in chapters based mainly on the relationships with specific characters. Period films can suffer from a sense of nostalgia, a stuffiness doused in a veneer of ‘authenticity’. That’s avoided here partly because of the vitality of performance and costume design and the tenacity in finding appropriate locations and lighting them carefully. The DoP Yves Cape does an excellent job and he clearly knows how to photograph women (I note that he was the DoP on the Claire Denis film White Material with Isabelle Huppert).
Much of the discussion around the film is about how ‘difficult’ a person the real Violette Leduc was. Even Emmanuelle Devos has described her as a pain. I can say that I didn’t feel that. She had every right to be angry in most of the scenes. I haven’t analysed this film re the Bechdel Test but there are two interesting and complex women at the centre of this and if you add Violette’s mother that’s three.
This interview with the director includes references to some of the aspects discussed here and features several scenes from the film: