Directed by: Martin Provost
Starring: Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet
Ever since the international breakout success of 2007's La Vie en Rose, French cinema has been churning out a series of middlebrow biopics of the nation's cultural icons. We've had insipid treatments of the lives of Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre-August Renoir, to name a few. All have suffered from the same crippling handicap, focusing on their subject's personal lives as opposed to finding a way to celebrate their output. It's a strategy that has resulted in a series of bland dramas, as very few of these cultural icons led particularly interesting lives.
Violette is the latest attempt to celebrate a Gallic artistic hero, in this case the writer Violette Leduc (played here by a committed Emmanuelle Devos, who was so great in last year's overlooked Just a Sigh), an author who is probably best known outside France for those she hung out with - Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Jean Genet, to name a few - as opposed to her own output.
Leduc's writings caused a stir in France in the middle of the last century, thanks to her graphic depictions of sexuality, a liberty then afforded only to male writers in a country that was still exceedingly chauvinistic (France didn't grant women the right to work until as late as 1964). Tackling subjects like lesbianism, abortion and incest made Leduc an easy target for conservative groups, while American softcore mogul Radley Metzger filmed her controversial lesbian love story Thérése and Isabelle in 1968 in soft focus fashion.
Knowing this, you might assume a biopic of Leduc to play out along the lines of a social crusading drama like The People Vs Larry Flint, but the writer's war against censorship is merely mentioned as an aside here. Instead, writer-director Martin Provost hones in on Leduc's cripplingly low self-esteem issues, and her failed quest to become the lover of the more respected writer Simone de Beauvoir (Kiberlain). As such, the version of Leduc on display here is difficult to warm to, a self-entitled narcissist who spends the movie moaning about her failure to make it as a writer, while those around her bend over backwards to advance her quality of life. Such self-loathing and misanthropy quickly becomes tiresome for the viewer, and Provost compounds the misery by constantly repeating the strains of Arvo Part's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten - which is quickly overtaking the composer's Spiegel im Spiegel as the most overused piece of music in cinema - to create melodrama where none exists.
If you knew nothing of Leduc's work before, you'll be just as ignorant by the end of Violette's mind and ass numbing 139 minutes, as the appeal of her writing is never conveyed. Was she an overlooked literary genius and a victim of the conservatism of her time, or is she simply celebrated for the controversy generated by her taboo breaking work? To find the answers, you'll have to look elsewhere.
By Eric Hillis