Violette Leduc is not a well known name, unless you have studied 20th century French literature. Leduc, a bisexual novelist and memoirist, ran in the same literary circles as Jean Genet, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, with the latter encouraging and privately funding her writing.
Leduc’s career as a writer, from obscurity to acclaim resulting from the 1964 publication of The Bastard, which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt and elevating Leduc to celebrity status in the final seven years of her life, is portrayed in the new biopic Violette (uniFrance Films/Adopt Films, 2013), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall.
Director Martin Provost delves into the psychology of this tortured writer, who, born a bastard, craves love in all the wrong places. She continually harps on the fact that she’s alone, that she’s always been alone, and that no one could ever or will ever love her—classic signs of abandonment issues mixed with insecurity and low self-esteem. “I’m a bastard. That’s the problem. No one loves me,” she cries to de Beauvoir.
The author of The Second Sex soon becomes Leduc’s object choice, because Leduc, feeling so deprived of love, attention and affection, misreads all signs of invested mentorship as something else. “One cannot be friends with Violette,” de Beauvoir says to a mutual friend, in full understanding of how starved Leduc is, and how this state of psychological famine results in Leduc twisting a morsel of attention into something else entirely.
The crux of the film centers around Leduc infatuation with de Beauvoir. Leduc is needy and petulant when the latter does not return her affections. De Beauvoir sees Leduc talent and aims to nurture it, as an editor and as someone who patronizes women in the belles lettres. She tells Leduc, “Write for yourself, not for me,” but Leduc’s childlike possessiveness enraptures her. “What can I do for you to love me?” she laments in exasperation. She telling writes a novel titled Starved about her infatuation with de Beauvoir, which represents the extent to which this starvation is self-induced. “You gave me my place in your life,” de Beauvoir says to her in perhaps the frenchiest French line of the film. “You can give me another.”
Emmanuelle Devos is extraordinary in her ability to capture the essence of such an unattractive yet fascinating creature in Violette LeDuc. Her sharp, erratic movements and frenetic energy perfectly embody the that of a middle-age woman forever locked in a state of arrested development. Sandrine Kiberlain as the legendary Simone de Beauvoir is a dream — she is fantastically precise in her portrayal of the unflappable feminist icon.
This film will make you want to read more about Leduc and her writing. She was kicked out of boarding school when she was a teenager for her “lesbian affairs” with both a classmate and her music instructor. She is like a sister to Genet, who ends up dedicating The Maids to her(!). People said she wrote “like a man,” and the censoring of Ravages (for its explicit sapphic content) led to her internment in a mental institution, where she received electroshock therapy. Yet she survived until cancer consumed her life. As Provost observed in a recent interview, “She transformed her doomed or impossible romantic adventures into novels. And she was always alone.”
Her strength was made of a violent passion straight out of mid-century France.