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Violette, the new biopic of French feminist writer Violette Leduc (she was a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre and Jean Genet), is a beautiful film to watch. From a technical standpoint, I think anyone would be hard pressed to find much fault with it. The cinematography is gorgeously, if not depressingly, dark; the sets and costumes faithfully rendered; the music score is enticing; the story is never uninteresting.
At the same time, when it was over, I have to be honest and say that I never really had an emotional connection to the title character.
I wasn’t sure why this was. I’m still not sure after thinking about it.
But in looking back, my instinct is to say that the reason for my detachment is that I wasn’t sure why the movie was made, what the filmmakers wanted to say about this troubled personage, what their attitude was.
And because of this, all I felt I got in the end were the incidents of the character’s life, the facts, the dates, the times, etc. But I’m not sure I really got, well, her.
Violette was someone who suffered from deep emotional and mental issues. She’s a writer who had little control over her emotions, someone who was blown about by a whirlwind, someone who could never quite grasp why people didn’t treat her the way she needed or wanted (with it being painfully obvious why to the audience and everyone she encountered).
Today we would dismiss her with the snide comment that she is just soooooooooooo needy.
The film begins during the French occupation of World War II with Violette pretending to be married to a gay man so they can live together in the country and get more food from the black market. She is desperate not just for his affection, but to have sex with him, though she knows fully well that he has absolutely no interest in her.
Her inability to find anybody to return her intense hunger to be loved is a leit motif in her life. Bisexual, she looks up a former lover, now a teacher who is married with children, and is confused and then furious at her old flame’s decision not to start up the relationship again.
And when she meets Simone de Beauvoir, she focuses all her desire on this icon of the French existential movement.
Simone perfectly understands Violette. She fully comprehends what is driving Violette. But Simone is in a difficult position. She has no desire to have a sexual relationship with Violette. Indeed, Violette’s desperation is so strong, Simone really has no desire to be friends (at one point, she says that no one can really be friends with Violette, which is actually quite accurate from the look of things).
At the same time, Simone recognizes in Violette a true artistic genius who has something to say that no one has said yet. Violette writes about women in a way that no one had ever written before (to such an extent that when she is published, her books have trouble finding an audience; men feel threatened by them; and they place her in peril with the censors).
So how does Simone support Violette without letting Violette become an intimate? It’s probably the most suspenseful part of the movie.
But I think this is also where my lack of connection to the movie lies. Violette eventually has a breakdown that sends her to a hospital. But is Violette someone who has deep emotional and mental issues because she is a woman in a man’s world (or additionally for Violette, a bisexual person in a straight world), unable to find true love, or is she someone who has deep emotional and mental issues because she is someone who, well, has deep emotional and mental issues?
For me, I think that’s the rub because I’m not sure the movie takes a clear cut stand.
And the idea that a woman goes over the deep end because of her inability to find true love or an emotionally satisfying relationship is not an unusual trope in French films, and even novels.
In Francois Truffaut’s classic The Story of Adele H., the daughter of Victor Hugo is so obsessed by a young man who wants nothing to do with her, she follows him all over the world eventually descending into an almost catatonic madness.
In Camille Claudel, the female sculptor ends up in a mental hospital after her betrayal by Auguste Rodin, both artistically and romantically.
(Interestingly, both of these characters were played by the same actress, Isabelle Adjani.)
Add to that the character of Madame Bovary, a woman brought up on romantic novels and who ends up killing herself after being betrayed by various men and not being able to find that great love.
I think one can see a common thread here.
But did these three woman end up the way they were because of unrequited love or because they have serious issues that would have been there no matter whether they truly found love or not (for example, today, we would probably diagnose Emma Bovary as not being love starved, but as being a manic depressive).
At this point, it might be kind of fun to see how the same situation often plays out in American films. In The Letter, Bette Davis kills a man claiming he raped her, when in reality he was her lover and was leaving her. In Fatal Attraction, a woman has a two night stand with a man; when he rejects her, she goes off the deep end and kills their rabbit. In Play Misty For Me, a woman falls in love with a radio disc jockey; when she is told to take a hike by him, her response is to knife his maid.
One can argue which is the more accurate approach to unrequited love on the distaff side, but aren’t they really just two sides of the same coin? A woman betrayed means a woman going crazy. But in France the women take it out on themselves, while in America, they take it out on the one who betrayed them.
But when it comes to Violette, I think the movie was trying to have it both ways, that she was a victim of being a woman and a victim of her own mental instability, and because of that the film was neither fish nor fowl. And I think it may make a difference in one’s response as to whether you see a character whose mental problems are inherent or whether they are solely caused by the way the world treats them, especially men.
But then again, maybe that wasn’t the reason I never fully connected. I don’t know. I just know I didn’t.
Violette is played by Emmanuelle Devos with a slight prosthetic attached to her nose (Violette keeps describing herself as ugly, though she really isn’t in the film and she seems to be the only one who thinks so; in real life, based on photos of her, one would have to be honest and admit that, to be generous, Violette would never have won any beauty contests; the movie plays it a bit coy here).
And Devos is quite commanding. She tackles the role with all the frustrating victimization of Joan Crawford, but with the intensity of that great masochist of film, the aforesaid Bette Davis. It’s a strong, marvelous performance by an actress fully invested in the role. She manages to make the character’s over the top reactions to the way others treated (or didn’t treat) her believable and strangely empathetic. You can’t accept the way she acts, but at the same time, it’s hard to blame her either.
Simone de Beauvoir is played by Sandrine Kiberlain with a contrasting calmness to Devos’ maelstrom of an emotional wreck. They have a strong chemistry together.
The screenplay is written by Martin Provost (who also directed and also gave us Seraphine, another story about a female artist who ends up in a mental hospital), Marc Albdenour and Rene de Ceccatty.
It should be noted that their heroine here manages to work through her mental issues and come out the other side of her black hole. After leaving the hospital, she writes a new book. But her previous book was already getting the recognition she couldn’t get before, so her new one only cemented her reputation.
She also starts an affair with a younger man.
And you know that she has made her way to normalcy when she looks up Simone and instead of waiting around to be asked into her apartment, she hands Simone her new book and tries to leave. But this time, Simone invites her in and in the course of the conversation, we discover that the young man Violette is sleeping with is married and ultimately unavailable to Violette, but this time, Violette isn’t even sure she wants more from her new lover.
In the end, she finds emotional support and stability by giving up trying to find it. The last moment in the movie is a triumphant scene of her signing her books to an adoring group of fans, smiling, enjoying life, surrounded by all the attention and love and support that she was missing for most of her life.
With Jacques Bonnaffe as Jean Genet and Olivier Gourmet (who appears in many a Dardenne Brothers film) as perfume heir Jacques Guerin.