Martin Provost has a thing for biopics of French artists, especially those from humble origins whose personal struggle is inextricably linked to their creative character. He is known to local audiences for his 2010 film Seraphine, which revealed the late-in-life ‘discovery’ of artist Seraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), whose day job as an overlooked washer woman concealed a rich internal life that spawned intense exotic floral artworks.
Provost returns to the lineup of the French Film Festival with Violette, another titular retelling of a struggling female artist, this time the uncompromising trailblazing author Violette Leduc, whose writing dealt with sexuality in a way that sat at odds with the conventions of the time. Emmanuelle Devos plays the spirited Leduc, a survivor of sexual abuse plagued by insecurity, whose spate of rejections kept her in the shadow of her famous contemporaries and confidantes, among them Simone de Beauvoir (here played by Sandrine Kilberlain).
The biopic is set in the bleak days of post-war Paris, and charts the 20-odd years that the impoverished Violette struggles to make a name for herself as an author. An early attempt to reach out to Simone de Beauvoir leads to a lifelong relationship, sometime rivalry, and unrequited romance, as de Beauvoir opens doors to French literary circles, which then proceed to slam shut in various ways, for various reasons – including an instance or two of self-sabotage from the increasingly desperate, always conflicted Violette.
Director Provost spoke in Paris on the eve of the French Film Festival, about his ongoing fascination for films about the artistic temperament, and of collaborating with Devos for the role.
The first time I heard about Violette Leduc was before I shot Seraphine – I was visiting my publisher – I had published a novel, and he asked me what I was going to do. I talked about Seraphine and he immediately asked me if I knew Violette Leduc.
Violette loved Seraphine – she had written a text on her, which René gave me and I fell in love with her writing and with this very powerful piece that gave me the will and desire to start reading everything she wrote. I did and I loved it and at the end of Seraphine I went back and wrote all about Violette Leduc.
Why do you think she was so overlooked in history, despite the constant support and encouragement of Simone de Beauvoir?
There’s no answer to the fact an artist disappears into nowhere. The real question we have to ask is why do they reappear? Why is she coming back? The answer lies in our society – in the needs, in the desires we feel to rediscover the artists of the past. They still have something to tell us.
The role she had in the women’s liberation movement, in trying to have equal rights, this is why she has been returned to the public consciousness.
She certainly presents as an intriguing character – her writing is so strong and powerful but there is such disconnect with her private life and crippling self-doubt.
The Violette I show in my film has no public life – no persona – I like to focus my attention from when she is convinced by (her ex-husband) Maurice Leduc to start writing until she manages to write Le batard, her masterpiece. Throughout this lapse of time she spent most of her life in loneliness – very much secluded and with an introspective approach towards herself. It was through these dire straits and difficulties that she managed to get to the creative act of writing in the process of freeing herself of the chains of education that she had received in society but also in her family.
She had a social life despite that – she occasionally met writers besides Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, but I decided not to focus my attention on those.
I went through different versions of the screenplay – the film is made with money if it comes to expensive you won’t have the budget. I started on the chapter structure.
I focussed my attention on characters that played a major role in her life. For some these presented a conflict (such as her mother), but though the conflict she had, she managed to find her own voice.
How did you collaborate with Emmanuelle Devos to develop the prickly character of Violette?
I wrote the film thinking of Emmanuelle Devos therefore I needed to meet her and have her green light before starting writing. She didn’t know anything about Violette. When I explained to her this role she was immediately on board.
I like writing roles having certain actresses in mind. I did the same for Yolande Moreau for Seraphine. It is a way of working that I like. I had to warn Emmanuelle that in order to be able to portray and give it life, she had to undergo four hours of makeup every day. She considered it a gift, which is not a reaction that all the actresses would have! She was very willing from the beginning, and she stayed for three years, getting involved and taking an active part, to get the film made.
I had a hard time finding right actress for Simone de Beauvoir; all of the actresses I asked said no. It was Emmanuelle Devos that was working with Sandrine Kilberlain at the time and suggested her to me. I really couldn’t see her in the role and I wasn’t at all convinced, but I gave her the script. Her reaction was so full of enthusiasm and desire to play this role that I entrusted her and gave it to her.
Violette screens at the French Film Festival, now underway around Australia.