French filmmaker Martin Provost has taken it upon himself to make movies about troubled 20th-century French female artists. His moving and strange “Séraphine” (2008) did justice to the marginal life and eerie creations of the painter Séraphine de Senlis. With Violette Leduc, the controversial and unconstrained author of such sexually frank, autobiographical works as “La Bâtarde” (“The Bastard”) and “Trésors à prendre” (“Treasures for the Taking”), he has less luck.
No doubt the solitary, subjective nature of the profession poses a challenge — there are cinematic limits to presenting an author struggling for words or finding inspiration and jotting it into a notebook, and Provost chooses the drabbest imagery to do so in “Violette.” Also, Leduc’s character (Emmanuelle Devos, wearing a fake nose that rivals Nicole Kidman’s phony honker as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours”) doesn’t wear well over a two-hour-plus movie. Self-loathing, self-pitying, prone to emotional blackmail, envy, and clinginess, a woman with the compulsion to fall in love with gay men and straight women, Leduc led a life that is probably best appreciated between two covers.
At least, that is, the part she spent writing it rather than living it, or hobnobbing with fellow French belle-lettrists such as Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain, who depicts deep cogitation though chain-smoking) and Jean Genet (Jacques Bonaffé), and complaining about censorship, publishers, and poor sales.
To be fair, the beginning of the film, which takes place in 1942 in occupied France before Leduc started to write, proves intriguing. Operating a black market trade in the countryside, living with the dicey, doomed writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), Leduc’s a blur of static chaos, a cauldron of needs and fury, and a match for all comers. Then Sachs hands her a notebook, tells her to write it all down, grabs a suitcase, and takes the bus.
Before you know it, the war is over and Leduc is stalking de Beauvoir, armed with her first novel. Recognizing Leduc as the true voice of repressed female sexuality, de Beauvoir gets the manuscript published. She also puts up with Leduc’s whining, her insistent crush on her, her nervous breakdowns, her spite and her envy, until, with “La Bâtarde,” Leduc achieves the success that probably still doesn’t make her happy.
“Violette” demonstrates how suffering produces great art, and that the artist isn’t the only one who suffers for it.