The biopic is most compelling when a strong narrative message is not imposed on a life. Life unfolds in response to the unpredictable, idiosyncratic occurrence tossed one’s way, and we, as individuals or collective, mobilize freedom or opportunity in the random events of life and politics. Violette, Martin Provost’s 2013 biopic about Violette Leduc and her encounter with Simone de Beauvoir, is a visceral and unnerving film about a difficult woman. The film reveals the anger, bitterness, rejection, sexual energy, and depression that saturated Violette’s emotional life, fueled her creativity, and dominated her writing. It not only illuminates an individual life in a non-narrative mode, it also tells the story of macro social forces. The complicated choices in presenting Violette’s life demonstrate how freedom is grasped and sustained. By the end, we see that the efforts of several people, most importantly Simone de Beauvoir, have combined to free Violette to live on her own terms.
When we first see Violette she is smuggling black market goods at the end of World War II somewhere in rural France. She is living with the writer Maurice Sachs. When he abandons Violette for good, he sneaks out in the middle of the night hoping to avoid her desperate pleading. Maurice is depicted as a flamboyant gay man, and Violette experiences his lack of desire not as a rejection of her sex but a rejection of her specifically. When she hears him leaving and runs after him to claw at his back and beg him to love her, we get the feeling that this tawdry incident is but one in a long series of personal rejections. “Ugliness in a woman is a mortal sin,” she will write later, as well as remembering, “My mother never took my hand.”
But Maurice Sachs did do one thing for Violette Leduc: he urged her to write. This is one of many encounters depicted in this gripping film that has no clear dramatic arc or formal structure. Unlike many biopics depicting the lives of women, Violette leaves almost every question unanswered. Viewers themselves have to tease out the meaning and implications of Violette’s frustrated sexuality; whether she is depressed due to mental illness or what Ann Cvetkovich (2012) would call a “public feeling;” why she so urgently clings to every person she meets and demands that they love her; whether her ambivalent and confusing relationship with her difficult and narcissistic mother is the main or just one reason Violette sees herself only as ugly and unwanted, a bastard; whether her intense awareness of bodily sensation was her savior, awakening her to life’s pleasures and pains, or her curse, making her too sensitive, too easily harmed; whether writing was her true calling or merely a means for survival.
At the heart of the film is Violette Leduc’s encounter with Simone de Beauvoir. Violette discovers Beauvoir’s writing by chance but subsequently seizes every opportunity to draw herself into Beauvoir’s orbit. Delivering black market goods to a bourgeois client, Violette discovers a book by Beauvoir on a table and slips it in her purse. The book is She Came to Stay, the bold story of a ménage à trois with a woman’s feelings, desires, anxieties, and emotions at the center. Seduced by this book and its author, Violette seems to feel she has found her everything in Beauvoir long before meeting her: soul mate, role model, lover, and friend.
Several critics have noted that Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain) is depicted as “stern” or “aloof:” Manohla Dargis (NY Times) says she comes off as “a cross between a dominatrix and a mother superior.” Beauvoir’s life and circumstances are indeed more orderly and disciplined, and one imagines that Violette would appear desperate and disheveled to her. After stalking Beauvoir, Violette shoves the manuscript for In the Prison of Her Skin into Beauvoir’s hands. Beauvoir firmly assures Leduc that she will indeed read it and such begins their relationship, and Beauvoir’s praise for Leduc’s writing: “You talk about female sexuality like no woman before you; with poetry, honesty, and more besides; Go further! Tell it all: trafficking, love lives, the abortion; you’ll be doing women a favor.”
To Leduc, Beauvoir is inscrutable. To Beauvoir, Leduc is an open book. Beauvoir recognizes Leduc’s talent and the political and social significance of Leduc’s work for women and for the world (she promises that her own The Second Sex will appear with Leduc’s L'Asphyxie, or In the Prison of Her Skin, and people will see that the latter is the best example of the meaning of the former), while Leduc continues to flounder, complain, and rage against the world, seeing every single thing as a personal affront, especially the fact that Beauvoir doesn’t love her and nor does anyone else. Unrequited love and extreme poverty feed Violette’s insecurity and frustration. Never able to see society’s role, she understands her problems as personal idiosyncrasies. And indeed, she is difficult. Violette not only chooses the wrong partners; she also never seems to learn a lesson, to fully appreciate her benefactors, or to take anything in stride. In one scene, perhaps the best in the film, Leduc enters a bookstore to search for her book only to find a few copies hidden in the back. This is an amusing scene, one that resonates with every author as Violette surreptitiously places her book in a more prominent place. Rather than slink out of the store after asking about “Violette Leduc’s” book (pretending to be someone else), she exclaims that she certainly is “not a friend of Leduc” and screams at the clerk: “Come out and say it! It’s all Julien Green here!”
Two things about the film are especially striking and original. One involves the centrality of the relationship between Beauvoir and Leduc and how it unfolded. No one except Beauvoir seems to understand or entirely sympathize with her. It is not even clear that Beauvoir sympathizes with her; she seems to find her exasperating, but still recognizes her brilliance as a writer and her experience as illuminating the lives of other women too. In short, Beauvoir sees the political in the personal. Leduc, too, with Beauvoir’s help, starts to see connections between her own and other women’s lives. Leduc comforts Beauvoir after Beauvoir confides that her mother has just died and she admits that though she felt only ambivalence towards her mother in life, her mother’s too-sudden death has affected her profoundly. Here we witness the risking of a dependent relationship between two women constituted by their ambivalence to their own mothers. It is to some extent a healing of prior wounds, and in another very different sense a manifestation not of the vertical mother-daughter bond but the horizontal sororal bond between two very differently situated women.
Indeed, the themes of ambivalence, affinity, friendship, and bonds of situated oppression between women builds as one of the most affecting features in the film though it is never too obviously announced. The film also instances solidarity between women across class lines, something far from dogmatic to feminism although exemplary within it. It shows us how a comfortable woman allows herself to be drawn to one who is discomforting. We cannot know Beauvoir’s motives; regardless, the two women share an encounter, and their relationship changes history and each of them. The chosen episodes make it clear that Beauvoir’s influence on Leduc made her the writer that she was and helped Leduc to find the meaning in her work, her creative impulse, and even her afflictions. Because Leduc is always in the grip of extreme poverty, Beauvoir supported her with a monthly allowance; we feel the claustrophobia in Leduc’s apartment where she eats only potatoes, as contrasted with Beauvoir’s deep couches, good wine, and built in bookshelves. Beauvoir also read and edited all Leduc’s manuscripts; she encouraged her to travel, to feel and explore nature and the countryside; she paid for her stay in a mental hospital, visiting and sustaining her too; and always urged her to take up her pen: “Screaming and sobbing won’t get you anywhere; writing will!” In addition, Beauvoir wrote a preface to La Bâtarde (The Bastard), an act that may have been what finally propelled Leduc to fame in 1964.
The film is also extraordinary insofar as the meaning Beauvoir gleans from Leduc’s writing, that a singular woman’s lived experience is important for all women, is felt as sensation revealed through language and image. Through Violette’s words we feel the physical sensation of love between young girls, of the sun on one’s face, of poverty, of her late term abortion and its aftermath, of having to fight and traffic for food during the War, of being unloved and unwanted, of never hearing god’s voice. We feel too, with Violette, how life is always too much, too volatile, too painful or pleasurable, simply too intense. The film makes one uncomfortable and yet it is deeply moving. The film’s techniques that depict sensations as lived through the body make it an experience to live through rather than a story to view and evaluate.
Moreover, we understand each episode or encounter in Violette’s life as vitally open. We never know which way things will end up. If we are familiar with the life and work of Violette Leduc, we will already know she will find success rather than die in the mental hospital or kill herself in the countryside. Nevertheless, the film is able to keep each moment surprising and new.
The film also resonates with several aspects of Beauvoir’s own depiction of how politics happens and how life unfolds. In The Second Sex and elsewhere, Beauvoir asks us to experience a singular life both as a singular life and as refracting social forces. At the same time that she illuminates and critiques structures, material conditions, and patriarchal fantasies that oppress women and deny freedom, she also affirms the struggle to live and thrive, the pleasures of nature or the beauty of a moment, and the surprising sources and locations of resistance. Beauvoir’s critical attention to affect, to bodily sensation, to the importance of feeling and emotions for politics, all are present, too, in Leduc’s account of her world—her experience of being female, lonely, and loveless. The film conveys not only how women’s lives are connected, but also how life and politics turns on the encounter—how we experience it, what we do with it, whether freedom is seized, affirmed, rejected, or simply missed. Violette Leduc encountered Beauvoir’s writing in She Came to Stay and seized onto it. Her reaction, to contact Beauvoir, and Beauvoir’s reaction to her, to acknowledge and encourage Leduc’s talent, made all the difference in Leduc’s life, and for the women who continue to read these women’s brilliant work.
*Thank you to Tom Lobe, Bonnie Honig, Nancy Luxon, and Melissa Moskowitz for thoughtful comments on this essay.