Biopics about famous writers always fight an uphill battle, as writing is largely a solitary and woefully uncinematic profession. Shots of the protagonist scrawling in a notebook or banging away at a keyboard will thrill nobody, so the author in question better have led a very exciting life when not at work. Judging from Martin Provost’s tedious Violette, Violette Leduc—whose 1964 memoir La Bâtarde (The Bastard) is a key feminist text—spent most of her life whining, but would sit down and transform those whines into resplendently angry and passionate prose. Leduc’s published words are occasionally heard in voiceover, but the film, by necessity, concentrates mostly on her stormy personal life. As depicted here, she’s so obnoxious that it’s a wonder her famous circle of friends manage to tolerate her, much less expend so much energy to prop her up emotionally and financially until she manages to write a bestseller.
Divided into seven chapters—each one named after a person, place, or manuscript—Violette covers two decades in Leduc’s life (though Emmanuelle Devos, playing the role, never seems to age), from her initial efforts at writing during World War II through the publication of La Bâtarde, which made her a literary star. Mostly, though, the film concentrates on Leduc’s relationship with Simone De Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), who helped Leduc publish her first novel, L’Asphyxie (In The Prison Of Her Skin), served as her friend and mentor, and deftly deflected her persistent declarations of love and desire. Leduc also attracts the support of a wealthy perfume baron, Jacques Guérin (Olivier Gourmet), from whom she secures a sizable advance on a novel by making him feel guilty for having rejected her sexual advances—even though he’s gay, which she already knew. Indeed, everything Leduc does in the film, apart from write, makes her look like a walking nightmare, though her awful behavior is clearly meant to be justified by her artistry.
Normally, casting Devos (Wild Grass, Kings & Queen, Read My Lips) in the title role would guarantee a certain amount of interest and empathy, as she’s a superb actor who radiates inner strength. As Leduc, however, she gives perhaps her worst performance to date, emphasizing the writer’s insecurity at the expense of her fierce intelligence. It’s not her fault. The screenplay, co-written by Provost (Séraphine) with Marc Abdelnour and René De Ceccatty, has Leduc constantly bemoaning her fate. She whines that her mother never held her hand when she was a little girl. She whines that she’s too ugly to attract a lover. She whines that Beauvoir won’t return her affection. She whines that nobody buys her first few books. “You are such a drama queen,” someone eventually tells her, and while the English subtitle for that line seems a bit anachronistic, there’s no denying the sentiment. A few excerpts of Leduc’s prose spoken in voiceover, expressing the same feelings poetically, can’t compensate for over two hours of maudlin self-pity. It’s so annoying that dull shots of Leduc writing serve as a welcome respite.