Virginia Woolf once wrote about the necessity of a quiet, sacred place for a woman to be able to write her story. The importance of solitude is universal for almost all writers, but it’s especially paramount for women, whose lives for so long were solely devoted to the cultivation and support of others. The journey of finding this “room of one’s own,” is the one explored in Violette, a film about Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos), the overshadowed contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
The film begins on the cusp of Violette’s entrance into the literary world in the last days of WWII. She is living with Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), a writer with clouded homosexual leanings whom Violette is dependent on emotionally. Growing up as a bastard with her icy mother Berthe (Catherine Hiegel), Violette yearns to be loved, but the only thing Sachs bestows on Violette is backhanded encouragement to stop her mewling and write. He abandons her in the French countryside, but it’s not before long that Violette is introduced to her mentor Madame de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain).
Violette portrays the verdant discipleship of the literary world, and the sexual worship it so often leads to, to great effect. Kiberlain’s Simone is understated elegance and sophistication to Devos’ immature and theatrical Violette. For a woman who for so long stood underfoot of everyone else in her life, she begins not as a contemporary of her fellow writers but as their charge. Her talent is recognized but her books don’t sell, and with each disappointment Violette becomes more manic. When Violette is hospitalized after a particular severe meltdown, Simone utters a telling phrase to another concerned friend, “It’s impossible to be friends with Violette.” Friendship requires mutual effort and exchange from both parties, and that is something Violette is not capable of in her fragility.
The depiction of Violette as a volatile woman who is swallowed by her own misery and woeful existence by those around her is a complicated one. While it shows the difficulty of penetrating the psyche of a gifted writer starved of a stage, it also makes her an unsympathetic character in her own film. I found myself agitated with Violette as a 40-year-old woman wallowing in life’s unfairness like a teenage girl while Simone pats her head. But the film speaks to the maturation of the writer, not the person, and what Violette has lacked all her life, love and a room, has made her a late bloomer. What’s important to note despite the filmmaker’s choice of character perspective, is that with the ongoing support of de Beauvoir, Violette discovers for herself the freedom that can come to her writing with a designated space of solitude to call her own.
Violette skips through two decades of Leduc’s life rather sparingly, and fails to comment on her more ardent internal struggles with much depth, but the film is worth a glance to garner further interest in a woman that rivals de Beauvoir in writing about women’s sexuality and experience.
Violette opens today at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.