Early in director Martin Provost’s Violette, we see the eponymous character lugging a conspicuously large leather briefcase through a series of shadowy French exteriors. The briefcase is eventually opened to reveal its contents: a wartime cache of sausage, beef cheeks, and other fleshy comestibles. In many ways, Violette Leduc’s ratty briefcase is a metaphor for the entire film: at its core, composed of raw, ugly feelings, but tidily packaged in a mute, expressionless vessel. However, Provost’s inability to find a compromise between these two extremes gives the work an uneven and at times unappealing feel.
For those unfamiliar, the real Leduc was a mid-century French feminist author, writing autobiographical works in the 1940s and 50s alongside other literary icons such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, though never achieving the same degree of popularity or critical acclaim. Her works, notably L’Asphyxie (1946), Ravages (1955), and La Bâtarde (1964), built off her troubled childhood, adolescent lesbian experiences, and deep-set inner fears. Provost’s film follows Leduc’s evolution from a postwar food smuggler to an acquaintance of de Beauvoir and eventual successful published author.
Emmanuelle Devos’s portrayal of the author is the strongest aspect of the film. Violette embodies a manic oscillation between adoring hopefulness and uncontrollable rage, both of which are portrayed with the same naked, teary-eyed intensity. It is a testament to Devos’s abilities that she’s able to balance these dichotomous aspects of Violette’s personality in even the smallest interactions. When she hikes through the woods, she barrels forward with a childlike excitement and intensity, each step barely keeping her balanced. When she mutters to herself while writing, her face manages to capture looks of vast insecurity, contemplation, agony, and sublimity, all hinted at without being committed to. Devos manages to anchor all of these wildly flailing aspects of Violette’s personality without ever too-greatly lapsing into a single expression.
Yves Cape’s cinematography is crisp and offers a plurality of delicately composed shots. Building off the now-standard, familiar palette of World War II-era grays, Violette’s landscape is visually stark but often beautiful, naturalistic without a forced grittiness. The camera creates geometrical patterns out of leafless claws of trees and lovingly illuminates tiny details, like a pair of sallow feet soaking in a bowl of water or a few crumpled francs shuddering on wet pavement. In particular, hands are shown over and over again, veiny and white-knuckled and decorated with forgotten rings. When Violette and a former lover reunite, a shot of their gripping hands shows them as both monstrous and feeble. “Your hands. They’ve changed,” Violette opines. The constant visual return to flesh makes the film a visual record of Violette’s own insecurities about her body and self-worth. “Ugliness in a woman is a mortal sin,” she states at the film’s beginning, and Leduc’s ugliness in her own eyes is referenced throughout the film. But Yves Cape’s camera is able to create a vocabulary of veiny flesh with the same delicate eye as that which portrays the suitcase full of sausage and beef cheeks — a sophisticated neutrality that doesn’t commit to the overly desolate or the overly flashy.
Yet the film’s glaring weakness is a similar inability to commit to a single manner of biographical storytelling. A biopic about the lives of somber French artists can only be as enticing as either the works of the artists it portrays or the personalities of those artists themselves. Violette is certainly well-populated with notable writers and thinkers — Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, and Maurice Sachs are all central characters, while Sartre, Albert Camus, and Jean Cocteau are all name-dropped without making actual appearances. But aside from the writing of Leduc herself (whose childhood traumas are hinted at but never portrayed), the ideas and works of these artists are never presented in full, and the characters themselves aren’t charming enough to merit their screen time. Instead, the film lets the weight of their names stand in for their ideas and achievements without working to make the audience care about them. This is most evident in the storyline of Leduc’s long-standing and one-sided amorous obsession with Simone de Beauvoir. De Beauvoir, who comes across as frigid and sterile compared to the alternately determined and manic Leduc, is an object of the eponymous character’s desire, but not of the audience’s desire. Leduc’s love of de Beauvoir is understandable historically, but not narratively, and it grows more tedious as it weathers rejection after rejection — a glaring flaw in a film that hinges on portraying a captivating relationship between two esteemed authors and thinkers.
Like Leduc’s briefcase full of meat, Violette is an uneasy compromise between inner wounds and outward presentation. It is visually pleasing and well-made, but lacks the necessary narrative commitment to compel audiences who are personally unfamiliar with Leduc’s work, only hinting at the inner landscapes of the characters who populate the film. Unfortunately, it’s Violette’s inability to both fully delve into the works of its characters and provide appealing personalities that prevents it from being a wholly compelling work.