No frothy French confection, "Violette," director Martin Provost's semi-bio of the feminist memoirist Violette Leduc, is -- much like Leduc's taboo-toppling writing -- frank, harsh, emotionally harrowing and, much like its subject, difficult. As portrayed by Emmanuelle Devos, Leduc was morally compromised throughout her life, a result of an illegitimate birth and frustrated lesbianism, and when we meet her at the end of World War II, she's a black marketeer with the scruples of a grave robber. That she is also a product of her culture is Provost's point, and why her work became groundbreaking.
Violette the character is crippled by a conviction that she is an ugly, unwanted child who will never be wanted and never be loved, partly as a result of her mother, the unspeakable Berthe (Catherine Hiegel), and partly because of what seems to be undiagnosed mental illness. When she accidentally acquires a copy of a Simone de Beauvoir novel, she doesn't just admire it, she tracks de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) to her apartment, leaves flowers at her door and forces on the celebrated feminist writer a copy of the manuscript de Beauvoir has inspired Violette to write. The result is a literary mentorship/partnership that is never quite satisfactory -- Violette is in love with Simone, who despite her own sexual versatility declines the offer. But it also results in Leduc's series of genre-shattering autobiographical books.
Provost creates a convincingly grimy, seedy world of postwar France. Except for the death of Leduc's friend, the real-life Martin Sachs (Olivier Py) in Germany, conditions outside the literary world of late-'40s Paris are barely mentioned. The arrival of literary signifiers are often gracelessly obvious: Jean Genet barges into the movie, Albert Camus operates off-screen, de Beauvoir dramatically announces her new book's title ("The Second Sex"). But the characters in "Violette" live on a diet of artistic devotion, self-absorption and mutual admiration, and what probably saved Violette's life was being let into their bubble. It may have been an awkwardly misshapen bubble. But Provost gets it to float.
PLOT The life of writer Violette Leduc, black marketeer, sexual fence-sitter and feminist literary icon.
CAST Emmanuelle Devos, Sandrine Kiberlain, Olivier Gourmet
BOTTOM LINE Devos gives an emotionally rewarding/draining performance as a difficult woman. (In French with English subtitles)