Looking at Violette, it’s easy to forget the endless pitfalls possible when making a biopic. Largely, that’s because writer and director Martin Provost smartly didn’t make one. Instead, he follows his subject, author Violette Leduc, in drawing from life to make something slightly other, without going so far as to seem unreal. What’s left is an affecting, incisive film about an artist’s struggle that manages to avoid most of the anxieties of an audience when hearing that a film portrays an artist’s struggle.
Provost approaches Leduc (Emmanuelle Devos) sidelong, separating the film into chapters, both a stylistic cue and a reminder of the remove of constructing a story from a life. Her influence is taken as given. Instead of biography, we get a character, presented with both fondness and honesty. Her overwhelming neuroticism and her faltering, cringing attempts to express affection sit easily alongside the ruthless observations she slings at her peers and her knotted relationship with her mother. While there’s little actual writing—brief mentions, occasional quotes and talk of demoralizing sales stand in for a legacy assumed to be common knowledge—the pressure of money on art is an ever-present antagonist. Even Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), whom Leduc idolizes, must face the chasm of class that separates them just as acutely as their disparate feelings.
The movie hinges on the two women at its center and finds its engine in its leading ladies. Kiberlain is a perfectly poised, quietly conflicted de Beauvoir, but Devos is Violette’s unquestioned weapon. Leduc is a woman unaware of her own power, but Devos offers an earnestness and frankness that makes Violette a force of nature, a landscape the camera devotedly explores. It’s a fitting focus for a movie about a passionate woman who’s still surprised to find she matters.