Director Martin Provost calls Violette a diptych with his Séraphine (2009), restoring recognition to an outsider woman artist who struggled for acceptance on her terms. Here, she’s the writer Violette Leduc, vividly portrayed by Emmanuelle Devos warts and all—well, with a fake nose to support Leduc’s overwhelming conviction that she’s unattractive and unwanted.
In 1942, Leduc’s black-market food trades land her in prison. She has been supporting writer Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), the first of her relationships with gay mentors who respect her critical acumen and, with a condescending attitude, encourage her writing ability. Her personal fulfillment keeps being frustrated when others don’t share her passionately fluid sexuality.
In Paris, she uses Maurice’s connections to deliver eggs and treats to writer Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain). Grabbing, and then devouring, de Beauvoir’s novel She Came to Stay changes Leduc’s life. First, she’s a rabid fan and then she stalks the author, watching her silhouette in windows and following her to the cafés she frequents. Leduc finally gets the nerve to leave her own manuscript for the author, along with frequent bouquets, and finally Beauvoir encourages Leduc’s self-expression and provides connections to get Leduc’s work out to the public.
One’s sympathy tends to shift from Leduc to Beauvoir, though, what with Leduc’s suffocating possessiveness and badgering jealousy when her mentor is out of town. It’s a credit to Beauvoir’s acumen that she could appreciate the power of the writing separate from the annoying creator.
Beauvoir’s shares an early draft of The Second Sex, which gets Leduc thinking of her uniquely female perspective for her own work. The frankness of Miracle of the Rose, the autobiographical novel by Jean Genet (Jacques Bonaffé), also inspires her to write about her life and her sexual experiences, including lesbian relationships and abortion.
Genet introduces her to Albert Camus’s prestigious publishing house, for In the Prison of Her Skin (1946), her first semi-autobiographical novel. The male (chauvinist) leading lights of French intelligentsia, such as publisher Jacques Guérin (Olivier Gourmet), balk at her explicit evocations of female sexuality and censor her work, but she is even more upset at how they treat her in their social lives together. She has to keep turning back to Beauvoir to champion her work, who convinces her to compromise over publishers’ cuts. (Not all her unexpurgated editions are yet available in English.)
The sources of Leduc’s anxieties are explored through her mother Berthe Dehous (Catherine Hiegel); she is haunted by her illegitimacy and uncomfortable with her mother’s serial affairs. As Leduc heads into her 40s, she finds peace in a village in Provence, where the lovely countryside gives her solitude and peace to ramp up her writing (and relaxing masturbation). Unknown to her, the publishers’ royalties she’s receiving are really a subvention from Beauvoir.
Beauvoir presses her to dig deeper, and pens an introductory essay for Leduc’s most famous book. When La Bâtarde comes out in 1964, the times have caught up with her intimate exploration of the roots of her passions and fears. She confidently carries on with a younger man, and basks in the appreciation of young fans.
The rambling unevenness in this portrait may be due to the irregularities in Leduc’s life, as she confusingly throws herself between poles of sophistication and naiveté. Yet, this is a candid tribute to how Leduc’s and Beauvoir’s idiosyncratic partnership promulgated a frank literature, which revealed women’s highs and lows, fears and insecurities, big nose and all.