Review: Emmanuelle Devos Shines in Biopic VIOLETTE

Dustin Chang, Contributing Writer
Ever since her breakout role as a deaf office worker, Carla, in Jacques Audiard's audacious caper flick Read My Lips, Emmanuelle Devos has risen to become one of the top French actresses of our time, working with auteur filmmakers such as Arnaud Desplechin and Alain Resnais and rubbing shoulders with Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardeu. The thing is, I can't think of another actress who made a career out of her frumpiness more successfully than Devos. And she happens to be a favorite of mine.

In Martin Provost's biopic of a post-war French writer Violette Leduc, Devos delivers another gold-star performance, again using her arguably unremarkable physical attributes as a weapon.

The film starts with Violette's black market smuggler days during WWII, when she is helplessly in love with a writer/fellow boarder, Maurice Sachs, in rural France. Even though Sachs is a closeted  homosexual, lonely Violette doesn't let up throwing herself onto him. As a way to fight off her advances, he suggests that she take up writing.

After getting back to Paris and reading the writings of controversial feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir (Sandrine Kiberlain), Violette, forever lonely and emotionally needy, soon becomes enamored with the famous writer. In turn, de Beauvoir recognizes Violette's talent and encourages her to continue writing. With this encouragement, their lifelong friendship starts. Violette finds herself in de Beauvoir's circle of famous literary friends, Jean Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus among them. She even finds an admirer of her work and a benevolent patron in a sensitive perfume mogul, Jacques Guérin (Olivier Gourmet).

Her first novel, In the Prison of Her Skin, is based on her life in an all-girls boarding school, frankly describing her lesbian affair with another student. (Certain parts of the book would later be adapted by sexploitation maestro Radley Metzger as Therese and Isabelle.) Her books, all based on her life stories, were considered salacious and scandalous at the time of their release; later she receives recognition as a trailblazer in feminist writing. She, unlike many other writers, at least gets to taste her success during her lifetime. However alone she may be in her private life, she gets to attain some inner peace that she very much deserves.

Provost (Seraphine) once again demonstrates his penchant for showcasing well-rounded female characters in his films: Violette doesn't come across as just a hysterical, extremely self-conscious woman, and de Beauvoir, not as just a cold-fish feminist icon. With the help of strong, down to earth performances by Kiberlain and Devos, Violette features great, undeniably human characters. Stately photographed by Yves Cape (Holy Motors, White Material, Humanité), the look of the film, spanning many seasons, is that of subtle elegance, and accentuates the superb acting.

Devos is, as usual, wonderful. Using her unconventional beauty and charm, she portrays a lonely woman who gets to express her insecurities and desires truthfully in writing, regardless of its consequences. Beautifully acted and executed, Violette is a great biopic that has a real heart.


Violette is scheduled to open in New York on Friday, June 13 at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Angelika Film Center, followed by a national release.

Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com

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  • Qinlong

    "I can't think of another actress who made a career out of her frumpiness more successfully than Devos" : well Sylvie Testud for instance...

  • dustinchang

    Really? You think Sylvie Testud is frumpy? Give me an example of a movie where she is verbally regarded as frumpy or unattractive.

  • Qinlong

    I don't just think she is. She was at one point regarded as the frumpy queen of cinéma d'auteur. She even famously said that her perceived frumpiness (which to be fair often derives more from her strange features than the way she's dressed) made the men who fell in love with her love her all the more madly, as they thought they were the only ones to 'get' her.
    As for films, there's many, like Les Blessures Assassines, Les Femmes...ou les Enfants d'abord, Filles Uniques, Dédales, even Lucky Luke where she plays Calamity Jane.
    And while Devos has played frumpy women before, I wouldn't go so far as say she's made a career of it.

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