‘Violette’ movie review: Love and the literary process


Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) struggled throughout her life but found salvation in her writing. Director Martin Provost uses some of her own words to tell her story. (Adopt Films)
June 26

Violette” is the story of one woman’s search for love.

Based on the life and work of Violette Leduc (1907-1972), a French writer known for such raw, autobiographical works as the 1964 memoir “La Bâtarde (The Bastard),” Martin Provost’s mostly engrossing drama unfolds like a book, with chapter titles taken from the names of some of the people with whom Violette sought connection. Her quest for love is virtually without success, because Violette’s objects of affection are either physically absent, gay, involved with others or, as in the case of Violette’s own mother, emotionally unavailable.

For most of the movie, hers isn’t a happy life. But the best stories sometimes aren’t. The movie is filled with screaming, thrashing and pleading.

“Violette” opens during World War II, with the title character (Emmanuelle Devos) working as a black-market dealer and living with the gay writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), whose disdain for Violette only makes her physical longing for him more pitiful. His one gift to her, before he runs off, is that he encourages her to write.

And write she does.

Movies about the literary process can prove problematic. The act of writing is a solitary one. Yet “Violette” mostly avoids the pitfalls associated with movies about writers by limiting the scenes of Violette scribbling furiously in a notebook. When it relies on voiceover narration taken from Leduc’s works, it’s more effective. “The squid in my guts shuddered” is a particularly evocative turn of phrase, taken from the writer’s reminiscence about an adolescent affair with a female schoolmate.

One of the most significant relationships explored by the film is the one with writer Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), a woman who was both an unrequited love object and literary mentor of Violette’s. Although Violette’s behavior toward the writer — who facilitated her earliest published piece, through her friend Albert Camus — borders on stalkerish obsession, Violette also seems to be genuinely in love. Their relationship is at once the most fruitful for Violette — in that she grows into her mature voice under Simone’s literary mothering — and the most frustrating, in that she is so clearly smitten.

In truth, “Violette” is less about writing than about living. “Words are alive within us,” Simone tells Violette. “They act.” Provost, whose 2008 film “Séraphine” was about a painter, knows how to enliven the creative process so that it doesn’t look like self-indulgence, but survival.

For Violette, at any rate, it certainly seems to have been a form of salvation. After enduring abandonment by her father, a nervous breakdown and romantic rejection after rejection, the film’s heroine eventually finds affirmation, not from a lover, but from her readers. She “seduced” them, in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, through literature.

★ ★ ★

Unrated. At Angelika Film Center Mosaic and the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains sex, nudity, some coarse language and a brief, violent image. In French with subtitles. 138 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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