Violette is a film consumed by hunger, as was its heroine, the French writer Violette Leduc: hunger for love, for companionship, for artistic validation. Portrayed with flickering levels of ferocity by the supple-faced Emmanuelle Devos, Leduc forcefully grasps at potential paramours and sucks down cigarettes with the intensity of a person suppressing grander desires. Leduc perceived herself as ugly, and Devos, who dons a slightly exaggerated prosthetic nose for the role, makes her a knotty combination of physical awkwardness and intense yearning, touching every book she can find and literally chasing her lovers when they leave her.
Certainly, those desires drove Leduc’s creative impulses: She devoted much of her second published novel to her infatuation with Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), the established writer and feminist who became her mentor and later, her unofficial patron. She named it L’Affamée (Starved).
Violette is the second in director Martin Provost’s diptych about female artists that began with 2008’s Séraphine, a film based on the life of painter Séraphine de Senlis. Like Séraphine, Violette begins with its protagonist’s artistic birth; we see her first angry stabs at writing, and follow her through the publication of her most famous work, the autobiographical La Bâtarde.
Thankfully, Leduc’s career turns out nothing like de Senlis’s, who died in a mental institution, and her film nothing like the sedate, sometimes aloof Séraphine — she’s far too angry, and too jealous, to fade into the background. After being ushered by de Beauvoir into a small circle of Parisian intellectuals that includes Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Albert Camus, Leduc rages against the comparative success of her peers, and freaks when they don’t take her seriously. She spits barbs at an unsuspecting bookstore clerk who hasn’t heard of her book, and at Genet when he has the nerve to call her “dramatic.” As Jacques Guérin (a wealthy perfumer who becomes one of her supporters) puts it when apologizing for an accidental slight: “Everything wounds you.”
Provost segments the tale into seven episodes that make its length (well over two hours) more digestible, but hammer home the sameness of Leduc’s parasitic attachments: One chapter is named for Guérin, one for Genet, and another for her mother, Berthe (Catherine Hiegel), the subject of Leduc’s greatest vitriol and most ardent attachment.
De Beauvoir gets her chapter, too, and Kiberlain’s cool elegance provides a necessary counterweight for Devos’s wiry energy. But their scenes really belong to Devos, whose darting eyes and slightly stiff posture betray Leduc’s discomfort with business-like interactions. This is a woman who prefers not to sit when she could walk nor to talk when she could scream.
Violette can be dour, even melodramatic — Arvo Pärt’s Fratres dominates the film’s second half, which dedicates increasing time to Leduc’s hallucinatory visions. Leduc frequently wears an odd burgundy hat that makes her look like some out-of-place exotic bird; while hiking in the country, she sports lemon yellows and minty greens. These are physical traces of the childlike nature that so often manifests itself in her tantrums and bouts of inconsolable misery, a passion that she can barely contain in words. Provost’s film, like its heroine, is full of active, sparking nerves.