The American writer Henry Miller once said that he hated writing but he loved having written, and it would seem he had a kindred spirit in the French writer Violette Leduc, who is at the centre of the eponymous new film from director Martin Provost. Leduc was a black marketeer turned celebrated novelist, her existence a series of crushing dramas, starting with an emotionally distant mother to the friends who are never there for the demanding presence. As was the case with Provost’s 2008 effort Séraphine, about the outsider artist Séraphine Louis, it’s refreshing to see a film that centres on a daring female creative who is just as self-indulgent and self-pitying as any male artist.
Like Séraphine, Violette (2013) is a shattering watch that operates on thin line of biopic melodrama and frank representation of a female sexual voracity; professional arrogance crossed with neediness and a warped playful merging of the Electra complex. Films about novelists are notorious in their banality, but Provost manages to dodge this particular bullet on numerous occasions. The piece is peppered with legendary names of French literature, from Jean Paul Sartre and his nemesis Albert Camus to Jean Genet. The drama here stems from the relationship between Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) and Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain). A youthful Leduc was discovered by de Beauvoir who, alerted by her talent en naturellement, formulated a female ally in post-war French literary society.
Leduc was a rabid iconoclast who wrote about abortion and lesbianism before legality and without condescending to exotic cliché. Violette is fascinating in its portrayal of their codependent relationship. At moments Leduc seems a similar mental victim to Jean Rhys, with her uncontrolled anger being unleashed against prospective partners through the prism of self-hatred and alcoholism. In the titular lead role, Devos burns out of the screen with an intensity that forgets vanity and cares not for audience identification. Her Violette learns quicker than most that artistic admiration won’t put food on the table or pay the rent – then the trouble begins. She’s a survivor and exists for herself, whether that means lying, manipulating or closing dying friends off. This battle creates a war of the id that one can only be impressed by. The ugliness in Violette’s life produced a kind of elegant beauty that can only be described as artistically heroic, even it it meant a scorched earth policy.