Emmanuelle Devos. Picture: Supplied

Violette (M)
4 stars
Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain

It can be difficult to capture adequately the life of a writer - or any artist, for that matter - on film because so much of the creative process is deeply interior and the journey that writers go on each time they embark on a new work is primarily a psychological one.

That journey doesn't always successfully translate into the intensely visual medium of film because it's simply not enough to see a writer scratching away at a notebook or bashing away at a computer to gain any deep insight into what compels them to make their art.

Martin Provost, however, is a director who seems able to go deep into the private joys and agonies of the artists his films portray. Seraphine, his award-winning 2008 film, starred the remarkable Yolande Moreau as early 20th century artist Seraphine Louis whose transcendently beautiful paintings of flowers and fruits were untutored and borne out of a life of extreme poverty and mental illness. That film poetically and powerfully illustrated the fine line between creative genius and madness.

Here, with Violette, Provost again produces a searingly intense portrait of an artist struggling on society's margins and producing rough-hewn gems in the process.

He also manages to extract another brilliant central performance, in this instance from Emmanuelle Devos as the French post-war writer Violette Leduc, whose psychological struggles were compounded by her precarious financial circumstances.

A contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir (played with fascinating froideur by Sandrine Kiberlain), Leduc never received the same level of acclaim as her proto-feminist friend and benefactor until she published La Batarde (The Bastard) in 1964, a ground-breaking memoir in which she laid bare her struggles with her illegitimacy and a past that included sexual abuse, a traumatic abortion, lesbian affairs, her unrequited love for gay writer Maurice Sachs, and a complex relationship with an indifferent and difficult mother.

La Batarde - a provocative, intensely erotic and in many ways transgressive work - could only have been Leduc's breakthrough novel because it emerged in 1964, when literary censorship laws were beginning to relax. Leduc was a trailblazer in this sense, writing about women's sexuality in a poetic and explicit way at a time when such themes were considered taboo in "women's writing". Her only real predecessor in this vein was Anais Nin, who was writing sexually explicit material in the early 1940s (albeit publishing anonymously) but Leduc has also been likened to Marguerite Duras and Anne Desclos, whose controversial novel The Story Of O was published in 1954 under the pseudonym Pauline Reage.

While the literary legacy of de Beauvoir and Duras blazes on, Leduc's work has slipped back into relative obscurity outside of France, so Violette is a welcome piece of reclamation. Indeed, it's the unfamiliarity of Leduc's life that makes it so compelling to watch. It manages a certain kind of narrative restraint while fully immersing its audience in the complex psychology of a woman whose emotional neediness and self-loathing competes with a fierce independence and a desire to tell the unadulterated truth in her writing.

Leduc's early writings, L'Asphyxie (1946) and Ravages (1955), may have elicited approving nods from de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre - and limited print runs at Gaston Gallimard's Editions Gallimard - but their publication was contingent upon heavy censorship.

There is one particularly compelling scene in Violette in which Leduc discovers that Ravages will only be published if all the sexual content is removed, a "mutilation" that strikes such a deep psychological blow that Leduc suffers a nervous breakdown.

Devos is quite astonishing as Violette, unflinchingly conveying all of the physical awkwardness, sexual longing, vulnerability and despondency of her character while also imparting a sense of hidden strength.

In Leduc there was clearly a refusal to live according to the conventions of the time, a fierce determination not to censor her emotions in her writing, and an acceptance, rather than a smothering, of her erotic impulses that would eventually lead her towards a sense of self-acceptance, if not complete peace of mind.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this absorbing film - apart from its ability to make Leduc's sense of isolation and loneliness feel almost physically palpable - is its handling of the relationship between de Beauvoir and her protege, who developed a romantic fixation on her that was unrequited but compensated for by invaluable professional and financial support. De Beauvoir could not love Leduc in the erotic sense of the word, but her encouragement, and her provocation to Leduc to write more and without expurgation, was in itself a liberating force.

It's a romantic notion, the idea of "salvation through literature". But Violette makes a compelling case for the reality of exorcising one's demons through the written word. Despite all of Leduc's flaws and vulnerabilities, de Beauvoir realised that her outwardly unravelling friend was "not impoverished inside".

As this quietly haunting film shows, in the end, Leduc came to realise it too.

The West Australian

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