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October 17, 2014


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Martin Provost - 2013
Adopt Films Region 1 DVD

So much of Violette seems to occur in shadows or in darkness. And some of this might be a visual signifier, with Violette LeDuc emerging from relative obscurity to late fame and fortune at about the same time that she ditches overcast Paris for sunny Provence.

As to how much of LeDuc's life was accurately portrayed in the film, I don't know. I only knew of LeDuc's literary reputation, primarily after her death. The film version of LeDuc is more complicated in terms of her sexuality, or more precisely, the disconnect between literature noted for its eroticism, and LeDuc's life mostly alone. There is the passion for Simone deBeauvoir, who refused LeDuc sexually, but in other ways proved to be of constant support, spiritually and financially. There is the constant neediness that puts off some that rightly or not, can not provide the kind of affection she seeks.

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Provost's film provides a glimpse also of the politics and celebrity of the French writers who emerged after World War II, sometimes erroneously lumped together as "existentialists". LeDuc is initially helped by Albert Camus, who sponsored a series of novels by promising writers. Jean Genet thinks of LeDuc as his sister prior to their falling out. LeDuc is frustrated that her novels do not sell. The film chronicles LeDuc's fighting her own self doubts at being a writer, first encouraged by Maurice Sachs, and later by deBeauvoir, first tentatively taking pen in hand, and later pouring out her thousand paged memoirs which she assures deBeauvoir was pared to the essentials.

The film is organized by chapters, named after key people in LeDuc's development, by their first name. The first chapter is the most problematic in that if one does not know that Maurice is Maurice Sachs, the viewer might think that this is no more than a gay man, some kind of writer, who is married to LeDuc, has gotten her pregnant, and ditches her at an inconvenient time.

Arguably, it is also easier to make a film about a painter than a writer as the viewer can see examples of the art work, whereas for the writer, the hope is to convey the value with a few choice quotes and the endorsement of a few famous people. Provost's Seraphine was a more successful film because it was about a visual artist, and perhaps also because the historical setting was more remote, and the scope of the film smaller. Much of that film was from the point of view of the title character. In Violette, there is the feeling of observing a conversation where it is assumed you know what every one is discussing, that the names of writers and publishers have an understood significance.

Provost does attempt to create a visual corollary in frequently filming Emmanuelle Devos from a distance to indicate the aloneness of LeDuc. Devos, unconventionally attractive, but attractive nonetheless, is not convincing when LeDuc makes claims regarding her lack of beauty. It could well be that making a biographical film about a writer is a questionable endeavor. The films that seem to best convey what it means to be a writer are fictional, like Alain Resnais' Providence, or fanciful as in Spike Jonze's Adaptation. Ultimately, Violette is closer to a textbook, technically perfect but emotionally uninvolving, when it should have attempted to be messier and more transgressive, closer to LeDuc's life and literature.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 17, 2014 06:05 AM