French director Martin Provost is fast becoming the go-to guy for films titled after their female protagonists. He previously made Le ventre de Juliette (2003) and the acclaimed Seraphine (2008). Now he’s back with Violette, a chilly but not uninteresting biography of the tortured, bisexual writer Violette Leduc. It recently had its US premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival and is now playing theatrically in both LA and New York.
Provost first introduces us to Violette (played by a fully committed Emmanuelle Devos, probably best known on these shores for 2009’s Coco Before Chanel) in the 1920’s. She and her equally bisexual husband, Maurice Sachs, are eking out a living selling black market goods during the war in St-Germain-des-Pres. Violette leaves him to his eventual death and makes her way to Paris, where she meets and becomes enamored with existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (the lovely Sandrine Kiberlain). The two begin a tempestuous relationship that is equal parts professional and romantic. Violette meets Simone’s prominent circle of friends including Albert Camus, gay writer Jean Genet (who describes Violette as “a drama queen”) and wealthy gay perfumer Jacques Guerin.
Soon after, Violette’s estranged mother Berthe comes calling. Her reappearance awakens old hurts in her daughter, whose father abandoned them shortly after Violette’s birth. “I’m a bastard and nobody wants me,” bemoans Violette, a refrain that gets tiresome to both her friends and the film’s viewers. Simone encourages Violette to channel all her hurts, anger and life story into her writing, which she does. Her first few books don’t light up the bestseller charts, mainly due to their uncompromising, uncomfortable content. “You can’t bear a woman talking openly about her sexuality,” Simone argues on Violette’s behalf to hesitant marketers. By the film’s end, though, Violette becomes recognized as a talented and successful author.
Henry & June, Philip Kaufman’s superior 1990 film set in bohemian, 1930’s Paris about the erotic and literary awakening of Anais Nin. I wish Violette had more of that earlier movie’s sensual fire.
Provost’s direction seems more workmanlike here than on his excellent predecessor Seraphine, but Yves Cape’s lovely cinematography literally illuminates some of the film’s duller moments. Students of French literature and/or philosophy will find much of interest in Violette and, if they haven’t seen Henry & June, should watch it in conjunction. Otherwise, only the most esoteric-leaning can probably appreciate it fully.
Violette will open at Laemmle's Royal in West LA, Laemmle's Playhouse 7 in Pasadena, Laemmle's Town Center 5 in Encino, Laemmle's Claremont 5, Sundance Sunset in West Hollywood and Edwards Westpark 8 in Irvine.
Henry & June: A-
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.