December 13, 2017
Friday, August 8, 2014

Great story turns into tedious history lesson

A scene from Martin Provost’s Violette.
A scene from Martin Provost’s Violette.
A scene from Martin Provost’s Violette.
By Pablo Suárez
For the Herald
Martin Provost’s Violette is monotonously explanatory and unnecessarily educational

It’s World War II in France. Violette Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) works in the black market. She’s married to Maurice Sachs (Olivier Py), who’s gay and not at all in love with her. But she is — and madly so. Not that she knows how to have a loving relationship, since she’s too demanding, excessively obsessive, and annoyingly neurotic.

Yet one thing makes her feel alive: writing. She wants to become a published writer. That’s why Maurice encourages her to write non-stop. Violette is a woman consumed with sadness and unfulfillment, so no wonder her writings are so emotionally arresting. She writes about her childhood, her unhappiness, the broken relationship with her mother, her abortion, and most important, about being born a bastard. It’s a painful task, but at the same it might be setting her free from so much pain.

After much work, Violette writes her first book. By then, Maurice has left her and fled to Germany with the promise of coming back, yet she knows he won’t return. As the war ends, she moves to Paris and learns of the existence of Simone de Beauvoir, whom she instantly feels drawn too. She decides to meet her, and so goes to her house and introduces herself. Most important, she gives her the book she’s written. Simone agrees to read it, which she quickly does. It so happens that it’s a good book. So she first suggests some editing, and then she’ll she that it gets published. Violette couldn’t be any more ecstatic.

From then on, a strong and loving relationship develops between the two women. But not without some conflict, for Violette falls in love with Simone too. Once again, unrequited love. Nonetheless, their friendship will last throughout their whole lives. Thanks to Simone’s continuous support and sponsorship, Violette’s first novel L’Asphyxie was published by Albert Camus and earned her praise from Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet. In time, she will become a very personal feminist voice reflecting upon the condition of women and their sexuality, their oppression and liberation. Then, a literary success ensues.

Martin Provost had already examined the life and work of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in his previous feature Seraphine, about French painter Seraphine de Senlis, who spent her last days working and living in a state of peaceful mental insanity. In a sense, her art had set her as free as she could possibly be. The title character in Violette never goes mad, but also finds salvation through literature as it turns her into a life-affirming, caring and grateful person. In different ways, her life was as turbulent as that of Seraphine.

Violette also excels when it comes to the performances, with Emanuelle Devos as Violette, Sandrine Kiberlain as Simone de Beauvoir, and Olivier Gourmet as Jacques Guérin. They all have some remarkable moments which glue the film together in a seamless manner. Whereas other actors would have approached their characters as illustrious figures with a very defined persona, these actors opt to render very humanized and recognizable versions, all of them really involving.

But the narrative many times fails to be that engaging, since it addresses many fronts at once and can’t consistently plunge deeply into most of them. Sometimes it’s also too informative and explanatory, quite monotonously paced and unnecessarily educational. So from time to time the story drags, and you may feel you are stuck in a tedious history lesson with no genuine pathos. Most scenes are cut off short right after the basic information is stated, not allowing for a compelling emotional atmosphere to surface. Oddly enough, the film is definitely overlong at 139 minutes — perhaps because it has too many scenes that say too little.

Moreover, the inexpressive, flat cinematography (even if technically correct) can only be prosaic to the extreme (not beautifully austere, just prosaic) so all visually poetic insights have to be left aside. Except for the last 30 minutes, when Violette gains considerable dramatic weight as it becomes a more introspective, reflexive film and scenes are given the time to unfold to the fullest. Too late though.

Production notes

Violette (Belgium-France, 2013). Written by Marc Abdelnour, Martin Provost, René de Ceccatty. Directed by Martin Provost. With Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet, Olivier Py, Nathalie Richard. Cinematography: Yves Cape. Editing: Ludo Troch. Running time: 139 minutes.

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