Violette, a new film by Martin Prevost, stars Emmanuel Devos as the French writer Violette Leduc, a very difficult role because Leduc was one of those authors whose genius seems to spring full grown from her misery. Devos captures Violette’s mixture of desperate neediness and fierce intelligence, turning the portrayal into a full realization of this troubled, complex person. Back in 2008, Prevost made another fine film about a real life woman artist called Seraphine. This film, with a subject that is more modern and more daring, is even better.
The movie opens during the German occupation of France, with Violette making a living selling contraband food on the black market, and living with her current boyfriend, a writer named Maurice. She wants him, he pushes her away, and eventually leaves, but not before encouraging her to write books herself. Later, in Paris, she runs across a book by Simone de Beauvoir, the well-known feminist author. Eventually she goes to de Beauvoir’s house and asks her to read her first effort, a novel called Asphyxia. De Beauvoir, played here with marvelous grace and severity by Sandrine Kiberlain, recognizes Violette as a great new talent, arranges for the book to be published, and becomes her supporter and advisor. But to Violette, she is more—an object of love, adoration, and jealousy. Some of her behavior towards her famous friend might now be classified as stalking, or close to it. But De Beauvoir, despite the instability of her protégé, never stops believing in her.
Prevost has chosen to present Violette’s tumultuous career in a series of chapters that emphasize the different persons in her life, including the avant-garde writer Jean Genet, a wealthy patron named Jacques Guerin, and Violette’s mother Berthe, a central figure in the author’s internal drama. Leduc was born out of wedlock, a bastard as she says in the film, and the sense of being unwanted never left her. Her need for love and approval is never satisfied, nothing is ever enough because she has no self-esteem. As Simone De Beauvoir says in the film, it’s impossible to be friends with her, but you must support her nevertheless. Emmanuel Devos dominates the picture is dominated with her constant motion, abrasiveness, vulnerability, and hostility. She’s apparently been given a prosthetic nose to make her less pretty, since Leduc was not very good looking. This doesn’t entirely succeed—but most of the beauty we do perceive comes from the creative spark within the character. Leduc broke new ground in writing about women’s sexuality—one of her books was censored because of its depiction of a lesbian affair. It’s one of the paradoxes of this excellent film that such a champion of female erotic life was so starved for love herself. Violette the film is not afraid to be just as honest as its subject.