Nearly every character in Violette, Martin Provost’s scholastically dense biographical study of landmark French writer Violette LeDuc, makes a point somewhere in the film to criticize its protagonist at length, bemoaning her appearance, her immaturity, her writing skill, her insistence on being. Among the literary circuit of 1940s Paris into which she’s bullishly inserted herself, LeDuc is a literal piece of work, a project and process constantly in need of redrafting. She’s not merely a creator of texts, but a text herself: Her sexual voracity, self-abasing neurosis, and stubborn commitment to impossible ideals provide the raw material for literary heavyweights like Jean Genet (Jacques Bonnaffé) and, in particular, Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) to shape their own New Woman, a bodily reflection of their own existentialist agendas.
But the reflection is hardly flattering. By focusing on the tumultuous friendship between LeDuc and de Beauvoir, Provost creates not so much a dichotomy of femininity as a funhouse mirror of it: de Beauvoir writes, famously and wonderfully, of the outrage and nefarious desires bubbling within her, but LeDuc gives those urges garish but insistent outward expression; what the former muses on the page, the latter bellows in the streets. Violette takes a major risk in using such bold stokes to characterize its titular subject, with Emmanuelle Devos working hard to uglify herself both inside and out, but the result is hypnotic, as Provost’s vision of LeDuc is both a repellant and cannily sympathetic one, a figure forever on the verge of collapsing under the weight of her insatiable desire. Kiberlain’s birdlike de Beauvoir, functioning as a surrogate for the audience in many ways, must submerge her own frustrations with tenderness around LeDuc, creating an unnerving pas de deux in which both figures infuriate and inspire each other in equal measure.
Violette is ultimately not the story of LeDuc and de Beauvoir, however, but of LeDuc and her own psychosexual torment, which de Beauvoir exacerbates by rejecting LeDuc’s romantic advances and also helps treat by encouraging her to write about her complicated sexual history. The film is an encyclopedia of abuse and rejection, opening with LeDuc’s disastrous marriage to gay writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py) and observing several foiled attempts at intimacy with old friends and new acquaintances. A true self-saboteur, LeDuc seeks out these rejections with a martyr’s fervor, but she only finds release by writing, which allows her to turn her passions inward. Provost chapters his film into six parts, each named after a prominent figure in LeDuc’s life, and though their arbitrary placement renders them somewhat pointless as a narrative device, they reflect LeDuc’s own way of organizing and understanding life, first in lieu of writing and eventually via writing: Her pain comes from perceiving herself through the lens of others, and her salvation comes from observing others through the lens of self.