Though its subject was real, the French biopic "Violette" feels more like a thought experiment: What if a brilliant and daring female artist was just as self-indulgent and self-pitying as the vilest of her male counterparts?
Director Martin Provost's epic portrait of novelist Violette Leduc is so compelling, even thrilling, in its frank depictions of female sexual voracity, professional egotism and twisted variants on the Electra complex that it's easy to overlook his film's shaggy, uneven plotting.
Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) instantly recognized a young Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) as a natural talent and a rare female ally in the predominantly male postwar literary circles. Leduc wrote about abortion and lesbianism before the former was legal and the latter anything but "filth," and so Beauvoir took the younger woman on as a protégé. Their co-dependent relationship — punctuated by Violette's pig-headed attempts to kiss an uninterested Beauvoir and practically beg her for money thereafter — is fascinating in their vexed and complicated motivations.
When Violette quickly realizes that the admiration of France's intelligentsia won't pay the bills, she begins to throw tantrums, once screaming at a bookstore clerk for not carrying her first novel. To support herself as a writer, she lies, manipulates, even lets a close friend die. And yet it's undeniable that her ugly struggles created not just beauty, but also a singular heroism.
No MPAA rating; in French with English subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 18 minutes.