Watching Violette felt almost traitorously enjoyable, considering the often-grim circumstances and wrenching hardships Violette Leduc endures, including time spent in a hospital. It isn’t the first time director Martin Provost has brought into focus an overshadowed artist; he explored similar, sadder ground in Séraphine. But Violette, a slightly stylized biopic of the French author, ends at a place of contentment and promise, and, along the way, manages to be sympathetic without being sycophantic, presenting a woman whose disregard is wielded like a weapon.
With Leduc almost always on the brink of poverty, the movie highlights the class issues at work between Leduc and her patron Simone de Beauvoir without leaning on them as shorthand for her disarray. Instead, it’s in her dogged tactlessness and intensely hopeless romantic obsessions that Leduc enjoys being at loose ends. And she does enjoy it. In the hands of Emmanuelle Devos, there’s a sharp pride even in her most awkward moments, as if having cast aside social expectations has opened up a supernatural force of personality. And the more she enjoyed it—wallowing in unrequited love for de Beauvoir, snapping at a bookshop owner that this Leduc person might be going places if only her book was in stock—the more I did, too. This Violette Leduc is a mess. And it’s kind of great.
It’s also not singular—if you’re looking outside the American studio system. Within it, you’ll have a harder time. Women in studio movies experienced a brief, vibrant post-Hays Code revival inhabited by sharp-edged, fascinating characters, but in recent years, the almost punitive homogeny of the studio blockbuster formula has made well-written women so scarce a celluloid commodity that artist Alison Bechdel introduced the Bechdel test. It determines, on a three-point scale, if a movie has two women in it who speak to each other about something other than a man. It’s increasingly becoming a cultural touchstone, alongside spin-offs the Racial Bechdel and the Mako Mori test, named after the Pacific Rim character, which determines whether a woman has a central character arc not reliant on romance with a man. These tests are, of course, not an end-all judgment of a film’s overall quality, but they do a bang-up job of drawing attention to the rarity of these dynamics in American studio movies. In Violette, for example, two of Leduc’s central arcs are her prickly relationships with her mother and Simone de Beauvoir; her arc is full and complicated.
I thought a lot about Violette while watching Wish I Was Here, in which Kate Hudson has the unenviable task of being Zach Braff’s supportive movie wife. She supports his dream of acting, but not enough to overcome her own workday stress and have sex. He tells her she seemed happiest surfing, years ago; she’s touched he remembered, and the movie never touches the implication that life since has been a slow, depressive slide. While Braff’s character is camping with the kids, Hudson’s dealing with a workplace harasser. (The movie’s solution? Braff confronts the guy in question, gets punched, and has the guy fired for harassment—ranked among the most tone-deaf, grating moments in a movie awash in them.) Hudson exchanges a handful of words with her preteen daughter, who’s consumed with Jewish law about women’s sexual modesty; otherwise, Hudson speaks exclusively to men.
It would be one of the movie’s worst facets, except for how commonplace it is—and for the fact that Braff’s indie funding produced just another studio role. Movies are awash in competent killjoys: wives who don’t approve of their husbands’ shenanigans, girlfriends demanding commitment, singletons who run a magazine in a single montage but just can’t seem to find love. When women get to play complicated characters, often that very messiness is the whole point. Awards are showered on performances regularly called “brave” for involving minimal makeup or aggression, as if either is a career risk. They stand out in their rarity. I’m often glad when a movie opens up like an antidote to the box-office staples. Amid Wish I Was Here and Sex Tape, movies like Violette remind us of the value of a no-nonsense, sympathetic, unapologetic mess.