Movie Review: Violette (2013)
In 2008, Martin Provost directed and co-wrote “Séraphine,” a movie about an acclaimed but relatively obscure French female painter in the early part of the 20th century. It was nominated for nine Césars and won seven, including best picture, screenplay and actress. I thought it one of the best movies of the year.
In 2013, Martin Provost directed and co-wrote “Violette,” a movie about an acclaimed but relatively obscure French female writer in the middle part of the 20th century. It was nominated for zero Césars, and no, it won’t make my retroactive list of the best of that year. It's not bad but doesn't resonate.
Emmanuell Devos (“Kings & Queen,” “Read My Lips”) plays Violette Leduc, a novelist and memoirist who ... Here. This explains a lot of it. It’s the first time Leduc's name appears in The New York Times:
Fame Through Confession
Roger Straus Jr., president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, recently acquired in Paris the American rights to “La Batarde,” by Violette Leduc, an autobiography. The 57-year‐old author has previously written five novels that won her the approval of such literary people as Jean‐Paul Sartre and Albert Camus but brought small financial return. Then, with what Simone de Beauvoir describes in a foreward to the book as “intrepid sincerity,” she confessed her way to literary fame, to sales that have passed 50,000 copies and to contracts for publication in Britain as well as the United States.
That was from 1964 but the movie begins in the middle of World War II, when Leduc survives by selling goods on the black market. She’s enamored of and living with a writer, Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), who, as portrayed here, is a bit precious with his talent. When she turns up days late after being imprisoned, he shushes her so he can finish a sentence. “Where did you get to?” he says finally. “I was worried sick.” He doesn’t sound like it.
She, on the other hand, is all id: pungent and needy. “To think I washed my hair for you,” she says, and when he doesn’t react, she leans forward and tells him, “Smell.” Later, she deals with his disinterest (he was gay) by showing even greater interest. “Take me in your arms. Touch me. Shut your eyes. Imagine I’m someone else.” It’s almost a relief when he’s out of the picture, since we think it’ll stop her from embarrassing herself so.
It won’t. Raised an orphan, and without a filter, she will always be recklessly needy. But she is also brutally honest, which is what you want in a writer. "Spit out on paper everything that makes you so miserable,” he tells her; and since he tells her, she does. We see her hold the pen over the page, and hold it, and then write, “Ma mère ne m'a jamais donné la main” (“My mother never gave me her hand”), which will be the first sentence of her first book, “L’Asphyxie.” Good first sentence. And very Violette.
In Paris, she thrusts the manuscript into the hands of Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), who is the opposite of Violette in most respects: successful, intellectual, cool to the point of chilliness. But she knows talent, and one evening sits Violette down and says the following:
First, I must apologize. I was expecting dull childhood memories by a frivolous snob. You’ve written a fine book. Powerful, intrepid. That’s what matters. Have you been writing long?
When Violette says Maurice Sachs is the real writer, de Beauvoir is blunt:
Sachs is the opposite of you. He hides his true self—behind words especially. But he urged you to write, that’s the main thing.
“He hides his true self—behind words especially” should be a warning issued to every writer.
With Sachs out of the picture (apparently he died at the end of World War II), de Beauvoir, in effect, replaces him, becoming both spur to Violette’s career and that unattainable thing that makes her needy. Violette wants into the inner sanctum of de Beauvoir, Sartre, et al., but gets only their distant encouragement. She wants their success but only achieves her own. She deals miserably with her mother. Eventually, per the above Times clip, she writes her way into popularity.
But it’s not a great movie. Why does “Séraphine” work and this not? Is it the difference between the art of the writer and painter? Painting is at least a visual medium, which suits the cinema better.
In the end, I think it comes down to personality. Seraphine was quiet, uncomplaining, and expected little; we were drawn forward to wonder over her. Violette is needy, loud, forever complaining. For all the art of the picture, and there is art, we can’t wait to get away from her.