IN THE FIRST FEW MINUTES of Martin Provost’s stimulating biopic Violette, authorities, sometime during the winter of 1942 in northern France, open a suitcase to discover its interior stuffed with bloody contraband sausages. The owner of that valise, Violette Leduc, played with feral intensity by Emmanuelle Devos, would spend a few more years as a black marketeer of foie gras, beef cheeks, and other delicacies in war-depredated Paris before devoting herself exclusively to writing. In this career, which spanned the publication of her first book, L’Asphyxie, in 1946, until her death, in 1972, at age of sixty-five, Leduc was also a meat-handler of sorts, composing visceral sentences that became the hallmark of her largely autobiographical oeuvre: “The squid in my guts shuddered.”
That line is heard, in voice-over, roughly two-thirds into Provost’s film as Leduc, on a solo camping expedition in Provence, begins writing about her boarding-school lesbian romance, adolescent memories she summons by putting her hand down her pants. (Expurgated from the book she was working on at the time, 1955’s Ravages, these erotic recollections weren’t published until 1966 as Thérèse et Isabelle, which soft-core maestro Radley Metzger made into a film two years later.) The great accomplishment of Violette is its sober presentation of Leduc’s frequently intractable nature, unruliness that the film honors without sentimentalizing or solemnizing it.
Provost, who cowrote Violette with two others, earlier proved his talent for depicting lesser-known, ungovernable women artists on-screen with Séraphine (2008), a thoughtful rendering of the life of naive painter Séraphine Louis, committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1932. Undone by the excisions that her publisher, Gallimard, demands from Ravages, Leduc will also be confined to a mental asylum, an episode illustrated economically: The author’s acute anguish is unmistakable, though the extremity of her treatment, including electroshock, is wisely never shown, only remarked upon by another character.
Yet before and after this hospitalization, Leduc is often upset, acting rashly, railing against the world—an agitated state that she seems to have been born into, indelibly seared by her status as the daughter of an unmarried domestic worker. The wound Leduc carried from her “illegitimacy” throbbed in most of her writing, never more profoundly than in her 1964 memoir, La Bâtarde, her best-known work (Provost’s movie ends at the time of its publication). “I’m a bastard! That’s the problem! And nobody wants me!” she howls to her mother (Catherine Hiegel). At once floridly self-abasing and relentlessly driven, Leduc constantly remarks on her ugliness and has a particular talent for bad object choices, falling in love with gay men and, crucially, Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain, fearlessly transforming the icon into a living, breathing, if still formidable, mortal), who does not reciprocate. Instead, the revered existentialist encourages, financially supports, and champions this irrepressible newcomer. Beauvoir issues a series of blunt directives—“Put your obsessions in writing, and the solutions will appear,” “Screaming and crying won’t help. Writing will”—to her protégée. However inconstant she is when not putting fountain pen to cahier, Leduc does exactly that, returning again and again to her cursed origin story. Provost, even while hewing closely to the conventions of an often hidebound genre, intelligently salutes all aspects of a writer determined to parse this declaration: “I am flesh and blood. I am alive.”
Violette opens in New York on Friday, June 13; a national release will follow.