Director, playwright and novelist Martin Provost started as an actor in the Comédie Française - and it shows in his films, featuring plum leading roles for talented actors to bite into but surrounded by a modern-day equivalent of the cinéma de papa against which the Nouvelle Vague rose. Violette is as good an example, and quite the paradox, as was the director's earlier Séraphine: a film about a free-spirited, unconventional artist struggling against the world wanting to box her in, but one that is itself fatally hemmed in by the limits of the prestige art biopic for upscale audiences.
Just as he'd done with the 19th-century "outsider" artist Séraphine, Mr. Provost creates a story of personal salvation through the transcendent powers of art. Here, it's the rise of mid-20th century writer Violette Leduc, a powerhouse force of nature that literally wills her autobiographical work into shape through sheer bloody-minded obsession, toiling for a long time in obscurity and public incomprehension despite the continuous encouragement of a visionary mentor (in Violette's case, the legendary Simone de Beauvoir).
In truth, Mr. Provost does not gloss over the writer's damning faults, of which there are many: her constant self-pitying, her depression, her insecurity, her fragility, and the continuous use of her self-victimization as a weapon to bludgeon others with (as De Beauvoir says at one point, "you can't really be friends with Violette"). The ever wondrous Emmanuelle Devos is appropriately fearless and remarkable as the tortured writer, as indeed is Sandrine Kiberlain as an imperious Simone de Beauvoir, creating the sense of real people suffering through real emotional turmoil. But her alchemical melding of unhappiness and life into living, thrilling art isn't matched by the film; while Mr. Provost often films Violette's writing literally pouring out of her hands onto the notebooks she uses, he never truly gives us a sense of the writing, merely of the circumstances and moments that lead to it, so that the viewer doesn't create a connection with it.
And though these people exist within the film as multidimensional characters lovingly shaped by the cast, the film quickly conforms to the standard arc of the artist who must suffer before finding success - in this case the discovery of Faucon, the remote village that Violette finds casually and that becomes her refuge from the world, and her winning of the Goncourt prize in the mid-1960s with La Bâtarde. It's a well-meaning but rather dull journey out of the dark and into the light, brilliantly photographed by the great Yves Cape but that nevertheless ends on a picture-postcard landscape of acceptance and integration that, somehow, is never what Violette Leduc's work seems to be about.
Still, Ms. Devos and Ms. Kiberlain are both mesmerizing enough to keep you interested throughout Violette's unruly length, and the light the film shines on this somewhat forgotten figure is certainly welcome.
France, Belgium 2013
Cast Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet, Catherine Hiegel, Jacques Bonnaffé, Olivier Py
Director Martin Provost; screenwriters Mr. Provost, Marc Abdelnour and René de Ceccatty; cinematographer Yves Cape (colour); designer Thierry François; costumes Madeline Fontaine; editor Ludo Troch; producers Miléna Poylo and Gilles Sacuto; production companies TS Productions in co-production with France 3 Cinéma, Climax Films and Belgacom
Screened June 30th 2014, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)