Call me sexist but watching a movie about a woman who screams and sobs for over two hours is not my idea of a good time. The woman in question is Violette Leduc, who was one of the first woman writers in France to tackle such charged issues as female sexuality, lesbianism and abortion head on.
To be honest, I had never heard of Violette Leduc until I saw this film. I had heard of Simone de Beauvoir, who was, I learned, Violette’s mentor and patron. It was de Beauvoir who pushed Leduc to explore her literary voice. Most probably, if it weren’t for de Beauvoir providing a combination of encouragement, tough love and money, Leduc would have jumped off the Eiffel Tower or something similar. That’s how troubled she was.
The film, VIOLETTE, covers a 20-odd year span of Leduc’s life from WWII to the mid-1960s. As the film begins, Violette is a black market trader of food in the French countryside along with Jewish writer Maurice Sachs. They are passing themselves off as husband and wife, though Sachs’ sexual proclivities clearly favour his own gender. After rebuffing Violette’s advances one too many times, Sachs takes off, leaving Violette to fend for herself. We come to learn that others have left Violette before and the pattern will repeat itself, as she is attracted to both men and women she can’t have.
Violette makes her way to Paris just as the war is coming to an end. While delivering black market meat to a client, she happens upon a copy of de Beauvoir’s novel about a ménage-a-trois, and is struck by the size of the work. Until then, she had never considered that a woman could have so much to write about much less having it be published. She immediately reads it and is riveted to it. She quickly gets to work on her own manuscript and tracks de Beauvoir down to give it to her. De Beauvoir is impressed with the work, entitled “In the Prison of Her Skin”, and so begins their lifelong relationship.
This film is a very competent effort in introducing Leduc to a new generation of readers who, like me, have never heard of her. The problem I had with the film, though, is that it lacks the same passion that Violette (both the person and the writer) had. For much of the film, we watch Violette engage in hysterics either when her friends spur her sexual advances or when her literary works don’t get the recognition she thinks they deserve. (If it weren’t for de Beauvoir writing the preface for Leduc’s most famous work, “The Bastard”, she may still be an obscure writer today.)
Director Martin Provost says he was introduced to the Leduc’s writing while he was working on the film, SÉRAPHINE, which is the story based on the life of French painter Séraphine de Senlis. After reading some of Leduc’s works, Provost said knew he had to make a film about her. “To my mind,” he said, “Séraphine and Violette are sisters. Their stories are so similar, it’s unnerving.”
Without a doubt, Leduc suffered from low self-esteem. In the film, she comes across as a woman who is always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If you find that character type interesting, you may like this film. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, it’s just too tedious to watch.
VIOLETTE will be screened as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Listen to the review online on Radio 3. (Click on the link. Scroll down to “Howard Elias – HK International Film Festival” and click again.)