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Knight at the Movies: Violette; The Hundred-Foot Journey
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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When Barbra Streisand addressed a Women in Film group in 1992 and said, "If a man wants to get it right, he's looked up to and respected. If a woman wants to get it right, she's difficult and impossible," she could easily have been talking about the three female leading characters in Lucy, Violette and The Hundred-Foot Journey. These complex women—played by Scarlett Johansson, the marvelous French actress Emmanuelle Devos and Helen Mirren—have reminded me ( as if I needed reminding ) how much I love female-driven movies and how rare pictures like these are, but shouldn't be.

I raved last week about how pixilated the action-driven, thought-provoking Lucy made me; now I'm going to do the same for two very different kinds of movies opening this week that have two very uncompromising women at their center. On the surface the films—a biopic of French writer Violette Leduc called Violette and an adaptation of a popular novel called The Hundred-Foot Journey—couldn't be more different, yet it doesn't even matter that one of the women is fictional ( Mirren as a French restaurant owner in the latter ). These are no-nonsense, take-no-prisoner, exacting-standard ladies and both movies, like Lucy, are elevated by focusing on them.

Violette, a critical hit on the festival circuit, examines the life of the feminist writer whose shocking autobiographical novels were taken up by members of the French literary avant-garde—with Simone de Beauvoir, herself a literary provocateur, as Violette's first and most steadfast champion. Filmmaker Martin Provost ( who co-scripted with Marc Abdelnour and Rene de Ceccatty ) dispenses with the standard biopic tropes, breaking his movie up into portraits of six individuals who had a profound effect on Leduc's development as a writer.

Gay writer Martin Sachs is the first of these. In post-war Paris, nothing in life seems to offer Violette an ounce of solace. Emotionally scarred from childhood and profoundly aware of her less-than-gorgeous looks, the ever-volatile Violette is making ends meet by selling food on the black market. Adding to her lack of self-esteem, she's also locked into a luckless, lustless marriage with Martin ( which Provost vividly portrays when Martin spurns Violette's heated sexual advances ). Fleeing the marriage, Martin advises Violette to put some of her pent-up frustration and anger into writing, which she does.

The frankly bisexual Violette is fascinated by Simone after reading a pilfered copy of her novel She Came to Stay, which has fueled her own semi-autobiographical book, In the Prison of Her Skin. She audaciously follows Simone home from a café and thrusts her handwritten novel into her hands. Simone not only reads the book but gets it published—firmly repelling Violette's advances at the same time. ( Violette is nothing if not persistent. ) The book doesn't sell and neither does the next one, although Simone and her other mostly gay colleagues at the forefront of the French progressive writer's movement—Jean Genet, Sarte, Camus and Cocteau, among them—tout Violette's brutal honesty. ( The books are sexually adventurous, thinly disguising Violette's lesbian affairs and a traumatic abortion in detail. )

"I am mutilated!" Violette cries out when told that her latest work is even too frank for her liberal publisher and must be edited. At one point Genet calls her a drama queen and, boy, is he right—especially when Violette realizes that critical praise isn't going to pay the bills. She never backs down from a confrontation, doesn't know the meaning of propriety and never misses a chance to point out the misery of her existence—which began with her mother ( who is very much present in her life ) rejecting her emotionally as a child.

And there is that thwarted, never-to-be-consummated love Violette has for the icy but supportive Simone, who loves her raw, exciting writing but not the woman who penned it. "One cannot be friends with Violette—you know that. One does one's duty," Simone comments at one point to the wealthy gay patron of the arts who sighs in recognition as he, too, has been subjected to Violette's over-the-top mood swings.

"Nobody wants me!" Violette sobs after her latest rejection and she's mostly right—at least for a long time. When she, at last, has a popular success with her 1964 book The Bastard, the recognition doesn't quell for a second Violette's exacting standards or the emotional rollercoaster—which, apparently, continued on until her death in 1972. ( The film ends soon after her mainstream breakthrough. )

Emmanuelle Devos is fearless walking the acting tightrope of this very complicated character whose kvetching, in less gifted hands, could certainly have alienated audiences. Instead, we are treated to a rich, fearless performance that is aided by Provost's artful recreation of 1940s and 1950s Paris and its gorgeous countryside. Sandrine Kiberlain is equally compelling as the arch, mostly unflappable Simone, and Catherine Hiegel is fantastic as the domineering mother. And the movie really captures the often lonely, torturous existence of the true artist—a huge feat in itself. The film plays exclusively at the Music Box Theatre beginning this Friday.

Equally diverting is the familiar, welcoming embrace of The Hundred-Foot Journey, Lasse Hallstrom's film adaptation of Richard C. Morais' best-selling novel ( and Oprah Book Club selection ). After losing his mother in a tragic fire at their restaurant in India, the young Hassan ( played by the dreamy Manish Dayal ) and his family wind up in the French countryside and, at the insistence of their father ( wonderfully played by Om Puri ), open a new restaurant. Hassan, who has learned the art of cooking from his mother and is truly gifted, only wants to make Papa happy even if it means competing with the exclusive French restaurant—you guessed it—only 100 feet across the street.

French restaurant owner Madame Mallory ( Helen Mirren, having a whale of a time ) isn't about to allow some little upstart—with its loud music, loud exterior decor and loud, spicy food—to encroach upon her fiefdom and she uses all her powers to thwart these new, unwanted neighbors. A culture clash of major proportions ensues, but once Madame Mallory gets Hassan and his family on the ropes she suddenly sees the light. There in front of her is the answer to her quest for a higher ranking for her restaurant: Hassan. She has an about-face because she sees in Hassan a true culinary artist and with this turn, the movie heads away from the culture clash into something not quite as compelling.

There is also a pair of budding romances—between Hassan and a pretty, sassy sous chef ( played by Charlotte Le Bon, who looks like a young Winona Ryder ) and a surprising, rather endearing one between Madame Mallory and Papa—as well as subplots with Hassan's inept brother, a nasty chef working for Madame Mallory, etc. Everything is neatly tied together by Steven Knight's script, gorgeously lensed by Linus Sandgren ( talk about food porn! ) and elegantly paced by Hallstrom ( who is once again in familiar Chocolat territory here ). Mirren doesn't get enough screen time and the turn of the material from culture clash to its focus on the rising career of Hassan, with its sidebar to Paris, is a bit too abrupt—but by the fade-out we are back on steady emotional ground, happy to have covered the familiar journey this diverting little movie provides. ( It might have been titled The Best Exotic Marigold Restaurant. )

Now available: The Best of Knight at the Movies: 2004-2014—a compilation book of more than 150 of my film reviews from a queer perspective for Windy City Times—is now available.

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