Violette: Toronto Review

Though it has a rough start, this is a beautifully crafted and performed period drama.

Martin Provost's second biopic of a French female artist stars Emmanuelle Devos and Sandrine Kiberlain as Violette Leduc and her mentor/object of desire Simone de Beauvoir.

TORONTO -- After the success of 2008’s Seraphine with Yolande Moreau, French director Martin Provost returns to the first-name female biopic genre with Violette, a film that stumbles out of the starting blocks but slowly transforms into a beautifully crafted and performed period film that illuminates the life -- and especially the inner life -- of French author Violette Leduc.

One of the first women writers in France to tackle issues such as female sexuality, abortion and same-sex attraction head-on, Leduc was not surprisingly admired by her peer and friend, Simone de Beauvoir, though it’s perhaps less known that Leduc’s admiration for her more famous colleague also had a sexual dimension, one of the things that’s suggested with a lot of delicacy and insight here.

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Arthouse darling Emannuelle Devos (A Christmas Tale, Kings and Queen) gives another bravura performance as the eponymous protagonist, which should help convince foreign arthouse distributors that this literary period biopic could do respectable arthouse and VOD numbers if handled right. It will be released in France Nov. 6.

The film opens during WWII, when Leduc (Devos) was hiding in the countryside with Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), a writer of semi-autobiographical material who pushed Leduc to write about her own experiences. The couple pretended they were married, though Sachs was gay while Leduc, who felt very ugly, was looking for both human affection and sexual gratification. Provost manages to suggest all this in economical fashion but the pitch of the material is too hysterical, with both Py and especially Devos overacting as if their lives depended on it.

Things calm down and get better after the war ends and Leduc moves to Paris, where she discovers the work of de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), who’d just written the menage-a-trois-themed roman a clef, She Came to Stay. Leduc manages to introduce herself and hand the writer her first completed manuscript (here as elsewhere, Provost takes some liberties with the historical record). De Beauvoir’s impressed with the honesty and style of Violette’s writing and the autobiographical book, In the Prison of Her Skin, was published in a prestigious collection curated by Albert Camus (somewhat oddly, and like de Beauvoir’s partner in crime, Jean-Paul Sartre, Camus’s never actually on-screen).

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After exposing much of herself so openly, it’s a blow for Leduc that she’s not an instant bestselling author like de Beauvoir and the budding writer’s lack of self-confidence quickly spirals out of control. De Beauvoir tries to get her friend to write again and all the attention leads to Leduc’s lovesick fixation with “Castor” (Simone’s nickname), an unanswered but fiery infatuation that would become the subject of her second autobiographical book, Starved.

Films about writers are often tricky because the process of creation is hard to visualize and literary brilliance is hard to translate into anything other than decontextualized voice-overs. Luckily, Leduc’s life and her writing -- in a genre that only in the 1970s would become known as “autofiction” -- were inextricably linked. Indeed, there are only a few shots of her writing at all and practically no excepts from her work, suggesting Provost wisely chose to portray Leduc’s life itself as both her greatest inspiration and masterpiece.

The only literary device used here is a division into chapters named after people, though this division feels artificial, since supporting characters, such as her gay benefactor Jacques Guerin (Olivier Gourmet) and her mother (Catherine Hiegel), appear more than once, as they did in real life.

A dowdy Devos beautifully suggest the complex alchemy of Leduc’s character, who was highly insecure and yet had an unrivaled inner strength. Her character’s sexuality is a large component of who she is and though the film little actual sex, it embraces the complexity of Leduc’s sexuality and her experiences with both men and women. A scene in which Leduc acts in a terrible black-and-white silent movie is narratively superfluous but also offers Devos a heart-breaking monolog in which the extent to which her abortion has influenced her life as a woman becomes painstakingly clear.

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As the iconic de Beauvoir, Kiberlain wisely plays things straight, thus ensuring the film remains one about the title character rather than anyone else. The supporting players are all solid.

The cinematography by regular Bruno Dumont collaborator Yves Cape is exquisite, especially in its chiaroscuro lighting. However, and like the film’s production and costume design, it never overly aestheticizes the poverty in which Leduc lived for much of her life.  

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Production companies: TS Productions, Climax Films, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Catherine Hiegel, Olivier Gourmet, Olivier Py, Jacques Bonaffe
Writer-Director: Martin Provost
Producers: Gilles Sacuto, Milena Poylo, Olivier Rausin
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Thierry Francois
Music: Hugues Tabar-Nouval
Costume designer: Madeline Fontaine
Editor: Ludo Troch
Sales: Doc & Film International
No rating, 134 minutes.