Violette (Martin Provost, 2013) opens as a film that is concerned with textures of the body and mind, the mind of a vivid writer and her body, as its is viewed by others and herself. In the opening scene, Violette (Emmanuelle Devos) bathes herself in the crisp air, then later cares for her injured friend, told through close ups of hands and body parts and a sound track caressing the skin. I began this film with no knowledge of Violette Leduc or her work, so this seems an insightful choice given the name of her first published memoir, In the Prison of Her Skin. Her skin, without the protection of clothing, is not an exposure which frees her — it is the very thing in which she feels trapped, punished.
As her friend, Maurice (a fake husband, to keep up appearances), convinces her to direct her sadness and despair into writing. The first line she narrates from her work is, ‘My mother never held my hand.’ Surely, a harsh line and a hard thought for so many to hear, redolent of rejection, spite, or yearning. This neglect manifests as a clutching obsession with people she comes into contact with, particularly her literary mentor and peer, Simone de Beauvoir (an extraordinary Sandrine Kiberlain).
In reflection, this is all a worthwhile part of the film, but experiencing it as the opening segment was very slow, cold, and alienating, despite its bodily sensations. Thankfully the particular part, set in the French countryside, did not last long, and when the film cuts to a more self-confident, sartorially assured Violette, in Paris, this feels like the film’s real beginning, the beginning of French dandyism and the literary scene, as she makes a new life in the city. She escapes the empty countryside, but what she can’t escape from ultimately, though, is life. ‘My mother spared me, to my despair,’ she tells Simone de Beauvoir, who tells her to write it all down, ‘you’ll do women a favour.’
‘Everything wounds you,’ her friend Jacques Guérin (Olivier Gourmet) scolds, and although she is a mercurial personality it is hard to believe that his criticism does not stem from a fear of women, and of women’s voices. Breaking news that her sexually explicit material is being censored, Simone tells Violette, ‘A man told me humiliation at being a woman should never be an excuse to humiliate men.’ That is the way that the early feminist fight for equality was viewed, and as the more vulnerable voice it was silenced. (This makes particularly interesting viewing around International Women’s Day.)
In the end, Violette found a way to have her voice heard and found some pleasure. At least, those things are settled upon in the film by the success of her sixth book, 18 years after her first. The Bastard draws the film to an end, an uplifting scene that, while I’m sure the text wasn’t so uplifting, allowed her some reprieve, some satisfaction. Violette kept living, and writing.
This is, really, a beautiful film, with delicately drawn characters, subtle acting, and a delicious palette. There is the odd cliché, like when Violette looks at the cracks in her apartment ceiling when she is on the verge of a breakdown over Simone, her mother yet again pulling her hand away and later a seducer clutching her hand with his, but these are forgivable. Gentle clichés like these can be expected in works that rely on and creatively interpret metaphor, particularly from another artist or art form, and visual description can suffer in some formal cinema constructions that are without the fluidity and freedom allowed of literature.
So, it all works, and with the intrigue, the fascinating relationship between Violette and Simone, and the brief snippets of her writing narrated on screen, Violette proves an important, remarkable film. Leduc was always the least noticed in her circle; at least, that’s how she felt herself, and wrote very convincingly that she was. In her writing and her thoughts, she admits that she blended real life with dream life, creating her perfect narrative, the perfect form for her feelings — just like some of the best films do. This is one, so see it, and honour International Women’s Day.