Martin Provost’s French period drama Violette relates the story of author Violette Leduc and her relationship with Simone de Beauvoir. It stars Emmanuelle Devos and Sandrine Kiberlain and has just opened in Los Angeles ahead of a national roll-out.

Emmanuelle Charlier talks to Provost about period films, casting and the inspiration behind the film. Paris-based Doc & Film handles international sales.

What inspired you to tell this story?

Before shooting my film Séraphine, I published a novel with Editions du Seuil. René de Ceccatty, who was my editor, right away spoke to me about Violette Leduc because she loved Séraphine. He gave me a short essay that she had written after having seen the Exposition of 1947 at the Galerie de France. The way in which Violette spoke of Séraphine appealed to me right away. It was poetic, so intelligent and real.

I recognised myself in it. And so I began to read Violette’s works. Her writing is all together cinematic because her life was simply so interesting. I am inspired by people from modest origins who struggle for their art like Séraphine and Violette, because they have neither education nor cultural codes and they must fight much more than others. To speak of them, to realise them through film – that is for me an opportunity to be as close as possible to the phenomenon of creation at its most organic and visceral state. For me, [creation] is not an intellectual process.

Was it difficult to cast the roles of Violette Leduc and Simone de Beauvoir?

I wrote the role of Violette for Emmanuelle Devos. We had met before the screenplay was written. I wanted her to accept the prosthetic nose, the idea of ugliness. She right away told me, ‘For a comedienne, to make yourself ugly – that’s a gift.’ I don’t think that many comediennes in France would have accepted that. She played the game magnificently. Emmanuelle has a uniqueness; a very particular sensibility. For me, she was the ideal Violette.

Casting Simone de Beauvoir was much more difficult. To play someone so well known is intimidating. It was Emmanuelle who told me about Sandrine Kiberlain. I never imagined her as Simone de Beauvoir, but we met and she was convinced both by the screenplay and the fact that she could be Simone de Beauvoir and I accepted. I have not regretted it. In France, Simone de Beauvoir is an icon and the critics acknowledged that her interpretation of the role was incredible.

Where was the film shot?

I shot the beginning of the film in la Creuse, which is a region in France with which I am quite familiar. The central part of the film was shot in Paris, and the interior scenes around Paris. The end of the film was shot in the Midi, in Provence, near St Cézaire and in the Alpes de Haute Provence. Violette’s room was reproduced in the studio. There were also a lot of special effects because it’s very difficult today to recreate the atmosphere of the period. But the effects are very subtle, very integrated in the body of the film. We do not see them. At least, I hope not.

How was the film financed? 

The film was financed by Canal+, Ciné Cinema, France 3, l’Avance du Recette du CNC (National Cinema Centre), SOFICAs (Société pour le Financement du Cinema et de l’Audiovisuel/Company for the financing of films and audio-visual works), Belgain Tax Shelters.

Did you find that it was easier to produce Violette, because it is your second period film?

Yes and no. I made another movie after Séraphine, Où Va La Nuit (The Long Falling) – again with Yolande Moreau [who played Séraphine in Séraphine]. It was good for me because it was not a period film. Yes and no because the expectations grow from film to film. On the one hand, it’s easier because I know my trade better. On the other hand, I continue to search and so I’m constantly questioning what I know. And period films – they’re twice the work.

You have now made two period films based on the lives of female artists. What draws you to their stories?

I am always asked this question and I think I found the answer the other day in Madrid during a Q&A following a screening. Why do I make films about female artists? The question is never asked when it’s about a man. So there is still a long ways to go.