French author Violette Leduc is the subject of Martin Provost’s latest historical biopic. Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) was trading food on the black market during World War II when writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py) first urged her to pick up a pen. Like many, Leduc found a journal the best way to voice her frustrations and reflect on her childhood. Her hand hovers over a blank page – the first blank page – and writes, “My mother never held my hand.”
Leduc, with the aid of feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), goes on to publish a series of memoirs that explore female sexuality to an intimate degree never explored in French literature before. Despite acclaim from writers such as Sartre, Cocteau, and Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé), Leduc fails to reach a wide audience with her early work, a failure that furthers her lifetime battle with depression and self-pity.
As the storyteller of Leduc’s life, director Martin Provost gives her a great gift in that he genuinely cares to understand her. Provost is pursuing a biopic that illuminates the emotional identity of its subject over the concrete presentation of historical occurrences. This is a finely detailed characterization visualizing unseen periods of Leduc’s life. Many know her for her widely censored descriptions of lesbianism as a schoolgirl, but Provost explores her life at the time in which she actually wrote that memoir – not the times in which she experienced its contents.
This lens of reflection provides a wonderful, literary spin to the screenplay. There is beauty in the way that “Violette” paints the art of novel writing – as a faucet without a handle and shoddy piping. The words pour from Leduc at times, while at others she feels she’ll never write again.
Provost shared writing duties with Marc Abdelnour and René de Ceccatty, and together they achieve real depth. Leduc recalls those early days as a schoolgirl exploring romance and sexuality, remarking that a relationship lasted “a whole school year.” The line and her reading of it is so clever in its emphasis of the warped timelines of childhood.
To further the connection to the literature it’s based on, Provost breaks “Violette” into a series of chapters titled after the primary character in Leduc’s life at a given time. It’s “Maurice,” the man who just wanted her to complain to someone else when he suggested she write her thoughts down; or “Simone,” the famed author of The Second Sex who supports Leduc for years while keeping her at a cool distance. In between the chapters, short time jumps occur and we meet Leduc again at a different stage of her career, with new people in her life. This is one of the smartest things Provost does, as the film is in desperate need of the additional momentum the time jumps provide.
At a very long feeling 132 minutes, “Violette” deals with some real issues of length. The first act moves along at a glacial pace, unnecessarily following Leduc from scene A to B. It’s always a strength to allow the characters to live on screen if by doing so we come to appreciate new layers of a character, but the simple act of following Leduc through the streets provides little stimulation other than boredom.
Even the stunning look of the film, shot by Yves Cape, can wear a bit thin. Cape is no doubt a fantastic director of photography, but he treats “Violette” as if he is still shooting the incredibly ambitious 2012 critic favorite “Holy Motors.” The wide shots of the landscapes in Southern France are gorgeous, but in more intimate work Cape employs a heavy regiment of camera tricks and general movement that doesn’t always cooperate with Provost’s humble storytelling (see “Ida” for a perfect integration of photography and story in post-war Europe).
Fortunately, Emmanuelle Devos, who is at a career high with this film, is remarkable in nearly every scene and has defined the character for years to come. Still, the film is missing one major, masterclass scene to put it on the map for major awards. It takes an appreciation for very strong, but even-toned filmmaking to get the most out of “Violette.”
Provost has also covered the life of French painter Séraphine de Senlis in “Séraphine,” so he is primed to complete a trilogy on French women in the arts – I can see the Criterion release already. Everyone involved in “Violette” shows a true compassion for the character. A third Provost biopic that follows a figure better known to American audiences would do well here. He is a filmmaker capable of Oscar-nominated work, but without many jaw-dropping, actor-y moments, this one doesn’t make a ton of impact. In this way, Provost is quite like Leduc: both are talented artists deserving of larger audiences.Continue Reading Issue #14
2 hrs. 12 min.
Drama, Biography, Foreign
Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet, Catherine Hiegel, Jacques Bonnaffé, Olivier Py, Stanley Weber, Nathalie Richard