'Violette': How French author Leduc dealt with life's damages
'When I've left you, it'll be too late," would-be seductress and budding French author Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) tells her black-market compatriot and roommate Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py) in the opening scenes of the literary biopic Violette.
"You'll die of it."
Hardly: Decidedly gay Maurice has no intention of becoming her lover. But this seems irrelevant to the dejected Violette, who drinks in deeply of the rejection, even revels in it.
As we learn early in director Martin Provost's skillful film, rejection defined much of Leduc's early life.
Her mother, Berthe, was an unmarried servant girl who became pregnant by the son of her wealthy employers. He never acknowledged the child. Deeply embittered, Berthe saw in her daughter a constant reminder of her shame and failure.
Violette follows 20 years in the life of the bestselling author. It opens in 1942 in a ramshackle country house in occupied France, where Leduc and Sachs are riding out the war, buying and selling black-market meat.
An author in his own right, who had cultivated friendships and love affairs with some of prewar Paris' literary lights including Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, and Max Jacob, Sachs wants to be left alone to complete his next book. To get her off his back, he encourages Leduc to try her hand at writing.
And so it begins, the remarkable process by which she would turn material from her own life into compelling literary gold.
"My mother never held my hand," Leduc writes in the film, describing in crisp prose how her mother would guide her on and off the curb or down a staircase by clutching her coat sleeve, always careful not to make contact with the girl's skin.
The heart of Provost's film is Leduc's complex friendship, romance, and apprenticeship with Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), whom the starstruck young author followed around Paris before eventually approaching her like a blushing schoolgirl. Afraid she'd make a fool of herself if she engaged de Beauvoir in conversation, Leduc simply hands her the manuscript of her first novel, L'Asphyxie (In the Prison of Her Skin).
Leduc is an overexcited toddler the next day when she gets a telegram from de Beauvoir inviting her around to her apartment.
Provost, whose 2009 film Séraphine was a remarkably sensitive portrait of the painter Séraphine de Senlis, uses the biopic not to construct theories or string together abstract ideas, but to present us with fully rounded, embodied, fleshly beings. It's a perfect approach to Leduc, whose work is so grounded in the messy, fleshy realities of life, it scandalized critics with its frank treatment of taboo subjects such as lesbianism and incest.
The director is served brilliantly by Devos (Read My Lips), who isn't afraid to portray Leduc - who died in 1972 at age 65 - as a deeply damaged soul who could be hard to like and even quite ugly as a person. Devos portrays Leduc as tough as a nail and always on the offensive because she's always feeling hopelessly exposed, defenseless. But when she allows herself to express her emotions, Devos' Leduc can melt your heart.
Violette ***1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Martin Provost. With Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Catherine Hiegel, Jacques Bonnaffé, Olivier Py. Distributed by Adopt Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 12 mins.
Parent's guide: No MPAA rating (adult subjects, profanity, sexuality, smoking).
Playing at: Bryn Mawr Film Institute.