In the lush biographical drama “Violette,” Emmanuelle Devos plays pioneering feminist writer Violette Leduc, whose insightful and sexually bold novels scandalized post-World War II France. Devos, with 70-some film credits in the past two decades, is one of France’s busiest and best-respected female stars, but little recognized in the United States. Her new film, which opens Friday may be the one to change that.
Leduc is a vivid character, famous/infamous, neurotic, rejected in love, self-dramatizing, insecure in her talent and wrapped in a suffocating relationship with her overbearing mother (played with domineering gusto by Catherine Hiegel). Arriving in Paris from the provinces, she sought an artistic mentor and, implicitly, a romantic partner in Simone de Beauvoir (austere Sandrine Kiberlain). Beauvoir’s composure and elegance alongside Leduc’s flamboyant neediness made the pair postwar Paris’ most unlikely intellectual odd couple. In their scenes together, Kiberlain is as cool as crème caramel, while Devos simmers with unrequited desire.
Though Leduc had fallen into obscurity, her life holds great interest for contemporary viewers, Devos said in a phone call from Paris, through an interpreter. (In her only English language role, opposite Gabriel Byrne in this spring’s romance “Just a Sigh,” she learned her lines phonetically.)
“I had never heard of Leduc. She was a writer completely forgotten since the ’70s,” Devos said. “But in France, it’s women who go to the movies, so this is definitely a film that women would go to.”
Its director, French filmmaker Martin Provost tackled a similar subject five years earlier, telling the life story of turn-of-the-century painter Seraphine Louis, a needy peasant from Normandy who late in life won acclaim as a painter of great accomplishment. When Provost approached Devos to play Violette, “I knew about Beauvoir, nothing more. It was by reading her books that I got all the extraordinary details of who she was.” Leduc’s semiautobiographical first novel “In the Prison of Her Skin” touched on such taboo topics as her childhood sexual abuse. Publishers expurgated her writing, which challenged the social and artistic norms of her era by discussing sex as candidly as male writers did.
One of the attractions of the role was the costuming. Violette frets at length about her ugliness, but dresses to compensate. Devos is dressed in the height of fashion, “because Violette was very ugly, it’s true she had an adoration for clothes. She loved to get dressed up in very eccentric, original style. The little money she had, she spent on getting dressed up. She has the size of a model, so she could wear clothes that would look beautiful on models.”
“For me it was not just the clothes. Wearing them causes a deep and profound transformation of the person, the way she is holding herself and dyeing her hair.”
That childlike delight in playing dress-up contracts dramatically with Violette’s stubborn independence and bold sexuality, creating a character half-woman and half-juvenile. “She stayed the child of her mother all her life,” Devos said. “Her terror was that her mother would die before her. Indeed, she died first and her mother did survive her. She sought culture and beauty from Beauvoir, who was an aristocrat. She considered her an icon. Violette was coming from a much lower status,” scraping by in the film’s early World War II passages as a black market food seller.
Devos thinks the time is right for Leduc’s work to be discovered and appreciated by a new generation.
“She truly wrote of feminine desire, feminine exploration, joy and sexual experience. This is why she was scandalous. It was much more acceptable from Jean Genet. She didn’t write like a man, that’s for sure.”