Violette (Kino Lorber, NR)

dvd violetteViolette is not a pretty film but, befitting its subject, it’s a strong and intense one.

 

 

Martin Provost’s Violette begins with a quotation from the film’s subject, the French author Violette Leduc, that reveals how well she understood the world in which she lived, and how she was regarded in that world: “Ugliness in a woman is a mortal sin. If you’re beautiful, you turn heads for your beauty. If you’re ugly, you turn heads for your ugliness.”

As portrayed by Emmanuelle Devos (with the aid of a false nose and unflattering makeup), Leduc was certainly no beauty. Nor was she in possession of a personality made for the spotlight: She was demanding, emotional, and contradictory in a world where the ideal was embodied by the cool, patrician beauty of Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) and the knowing sophistication of Jean Genet (Jacques Bonaffe). What she did have was an indomitable spirit that allowed her to ignore the world’s many rejections and persist in bringing her books into the world.

Violette is not a pretty film but, befitting its subject, it’s a strong and intense one. Given the many obstacles Leduc had to overcome—beginning with her birth to an unmarried servant woman whose attitude toward her was less than nurturing—it’s amazing she wrote at all, let alone that she became one of the most respected French writers of he 20th century. The difficulties of her life are on full display in Provost’s film, along with the strength and stubbornness that allowed her to overcome her many disadvantages and persist in developing her unique voice.

Provost isn’t aiming for a seamless, Hollywood-style biopic, but instead presents episodes from Leduc’s life as a series of distinct chapters, none of which play into the romanticized version of the literary genius. In the first, we see Leduc arrested for selling black market goods (not stockings or cognac, but bloody animal parts straight from the butcher), only to return home to be berated by her live-in companion, the gay writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py). As often was the case for Leduc, the hardness of her life also carried blessings: Sachs may have been abusive, but he also encouraged her to write, because, despite his self-centeredness and her lack of sophistication, he recognized her talent.

Leduc may not have been subtle, but she was very determined. In Paris, she practically stalked de Beauvoir, who also recognized the talent beneath the crude exterior and passed on Leduc’s work to a friend at Gallimard, leading to Violette’s first publication. Beauvoir becomes a champion for Leduc’s work, arguing that women’s experiences should be valued equally with those of men, and that a strong female voice like Leduc’s deserved to be in print. The French literary press was not ready for Leduc, however; she was published, but with heavy censorship, with matters such as abortion and lesbianism proving too much for them to handle.

Because so much of what a writer does happens inside his or her head, directors often struggle when trying to put the life of an author on screen. Provost found a good solution in this film, combining voiceover of Leduc’s writing with intense observation of the physical process of writing—the pen moving across paper, the tattered notebooks and loose pages in which Leduc put down her thoughts—as well as an appreciation for the seductive qualities of the completed, published book.

There are no extras on the disc. | Sarah Boslaugh

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