Film Review: Violette

This is the story of Violette Leduc, 20th century bisexual Parisienne authoress. Leduc kept company with several French intellectuals and artists that I am familiar with and admire, such as Jean Cocteau and Simone De Beauvoir, yet I had never heard her name before encountering this film’s promotion. After watching the film, I can understand why. Violette explores a life eked out in the margins of history. A life of dependence, and being pushed aside because heightened emotions are messy and take time to deal with. A life of acting out, and accusations of drama.

Characters

Not ugly... but probably plain.
Not ugly… but probably plain.

About three-fourths of the way through Violette, Leduc is hospitalized. Her diagnosis is never mentioned in the film, but De Beauvoir makes reference to Leduc receiving “electroshocks”, usually referred to in mental health treatment circles these days as ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). My off-the-cuff diagnosis of the film’s portrayed Leduc, with the insight provided by Master’s level coursework in social work? EID (Emotional Intensity Disorder), more commonly referred to as borderline personality disorder. Behaviors displayed by the film character common to those with EID included, but were not limited to: polarized black/white thinking and alternating idealization/demonization of people she related to, suicidal thinking and threats of suicide, inappropriate attempts at intimacy ignoring commonly recognized social boundaries, attempted use of sexuality as a commodity in exchange for intimacy, frantic acting out to avoid real or perceived abandonment, and ascribing her own thoughts and motives to others due to a lack of sense of self. If this attempt at diagnosis rings true (and I don’t feel like taking a trip over to Wikipedia to find out at the moment, it’s been a trying day), the real Leduc would have had my sympathies. The lived experience of people with EID is frequently nightmarish; the disorder is a direct assault on quality of life, an impairment only compounded by the social consequences of disability. I listened to the assessment of Violette’s character by other moviegoers with interest. One pejorative adjective I heard them label her with was “whiny”. Well, if you experienced the pain of excruciatingly intense negative emotions that someone with EID lives with on a daily basis, you would most likely whine too.

Authenticity of Setting

Check out that wallpaper!
Check out that wallpaper!

After my dismay over the staged feel of The Artist, the believability of Violette as a mid-twentieth century period piece refreshed me. The film included so many details about Violette’s marginal life in Paris that I never would have thought to include, from sponge baths and toilets down the hall from the apartment, to dingy peeling wallpaper, chipped paint and scuffed wood. Even the furnishings of the office of the richest character in the film (gay perfume-maker Jacques), while sumptuous relative to the rest of the setting’s decor, would have appeared modest if juxtaposed with the brass, marble, polished wood and brilliant lighting of the standard Rich CEO’s Office of most current Hollywood creations. Violette’s studio apartment reminded me of my own studios in days gone by in Chicago, except the general shabbiness of Violette’s place was much worse – absolutely to be expected in 1950s Paris from someone living the feast-or-famine lifestyle of a black marketer, like Violette wades through at the start of the film. What I really loved about all of this mise-en-scene was the fact that if someone had asked me what life was like in Paris during the era of the film, I would have strained to imagine the details, but every time a new scene started in Violette, some part of my heart and mind said “Yes! Yes, that is exactly what it was like!”

Casting

Yes, Virginia, there are images of real women in the movies.
Yes, Virginia, there are images of real women in the movies.

Violette‘s casting was equally painstakingly realistic. Again, I must contrast this film with The Artist. Unlike Bejo’s conventional Hollywood beauty, the actresses who played De Beauvoir and Leduc had the sort of approachable look I am familiar with from passing everyday women on Midwestern streets, the sort of approachable look I am familiar with from looking in the mirror. Sandrine Kiberlain, who played De Beauvoir, is thin, but it’s not a glamorous, hypersexualized thin, she’s just a thin woman. When Emmanuelle Devos gives voice to Leduc’s insecurities about her age and appearance, I can believe that the character would think such things, and not experience cognitive dissonance like I did when I watched Eva Mendes fuss with her hair in Hitch. If this is how French cinema in general or Martin Provost in particular usually rolls, I have to watch more.

If you are unsympathetic toward people who have mental illness and behave in ways that push the limits of what is socially acceptable as the result of their emotions running high, you are unlikely to find anything here that will challenge your preconceived notions about the meaning of such people’s lives. If, however, you would like to examine how such people are able to find solace in art or the written word, and can produce works that even people who do not struggle with such illness or behavior find valuable, Violette is probably worth your time. It’s not a short film and it is quite possible that it will emotionally drain you. But I enjoyed it, and it reminded me of why I engage in creative endeavors like this blog.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

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