Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough, Aiysha Hart
Director: Wash Westmoreland
Writers: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland
One of the great pleasures of going to see a new film is when you go in expecting it to be a retread of tropes and stories that you’ve seen before and it turns out to be something quite new. In the case of Colette, I was more or less expecting a 19th century remake of Big Eyes; the story of a woman with an extraordinary talent whose husband takes credit for her work while keeping her confined and silent. While that is pretty much the overall plot of Colette, the film has larger ideas on its mind and a more engaging way of going about them. Almost as soon as the film has established its master-slave dynamic between the main couple, the story promptly moves on from there to the part of the story it’s really interested in: the leading lady’s liberation. In a much broader sense, this is a film about challenging traditional gender roles and breaking free from the patriarchal constraints designed to ensure that women conform to the roles imposed upon them. The film is unapologetically feminist and relishes in telling its story through an unmistakably modern lens. It is a story of transformation and empowerment told with wit, ornate detail and terrific performances.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland and based on a script he wrote with Richard Glatzer, Westmoreland’s late husband and writing partner for such films as Still Alice, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Colette tells the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), one of the most popular French writers of her day. As the film begins in 1892, we are at first led to believe that the teenaged Colette is little more than a simple, virginal country girl living a tranquil life with her parents (Robert Pugh and Fiona Shaw) in their picturesque, rural cottage in Burgundy. When famed Parisian writer Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), also known by his pen name Willy, vaults in with his wealth, charm and a respectably cordial proposal of marriage, the parents are readily impressed and eagerly approve of the union, completely unaware their daughter and her fiancé have been holding secret meetings in the barn for quite a while. They rendezvous later that day for another one of their trysts and we see that Colette is a little more worldly and independent than either we or her parents had taken her to be. She and her beau are soon married and off they go to Paris to enjoy a life of debonair fashion, fine art and saucy parties amongst the clique of French high society.
I suppose there are some who will feel that Willy should have been depicted in a more villainous light. It doesn’t take Colette long to learn that he is a plagiarist whose bibliography is actually the work of a team of writers on his payroll, he is a serial adulterer, a reckless spendthrift, a spotlight hog and he eventually proves himself to be an emotionally abusive husband. It would have been all too easy to portray him as an irredeemable monster and, at his core, maybe that is what he is but to frame him in that simplistic way undercuts the complicated relationship he shares with Colette and the role he played in creating the radical phenomenon that she would become. The film allows West to play Willy with all the wit and magnetism of a fashionable socialite whose every deed, utterance and gesture is a performance unto itself of a character, or a ‘brand’, that the man has created. For all of his many vices, it is Willy first sees something special in his wife and provides her with both a means of expression and a source of stimulation. That said, it is certainly more out of convenience for him than it is belief in her that he turns to Colette at all and it is very much his intention to remain in control of the whole enterprise, taking the credit for Colette’s work and forcing her (even going so far as to lock her in a room at one point) to continue writing after her work becomes a sensation.
There is love and genuine affection in their relationship, but there’s also jealousy, betrayal and conflict and all of it serves as fuel for the development of Colette’s literary voice. What started as an inequitable arrangement designed to keep her in captivity and subservient to her husband instead becomes the first step in Colette’s journey towards emancipation. When she becomes frustrated with her husband’s stifling dominance and constant paranoia that his far more talented wife is set on undermining him, Colette finds satisfaction elsewhere. Following her hypocritical husband’s cues, Colette begins sleeping with other woman, first the Louisiana belle Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson) and later the nonconformist cross-dressing noblewoman Missy (Denise Gough). Even today in this modern ‘liberated Hollywood’ climate, it is astonishing how frankly and casually the film deals with its heroine’s blossoming queerness. While other films are tiresomely repressive or chaste in their depictions of LGBT romance and sex, Colette revels in the openness and looseness of the titular character’s sexual exploration. There isn’t even really a coming out moment for her; Colette’s proclivity for women is simply an extension of her character, a broadening of the enlightened, liberated manner that allowed her to become such a great writer.
Carrying it all the way through is Knightley in a career-best performance as a remarkable, revolutionary woman defiantly making her mark and asserting her identity and autonomy. It is in the film’s second half where she truly shines as Colette moves on from her life with Willy and carves out a passage for herself in whatever daring and provocative way she pleases. Knightley is both gritty and glamorous in the role; the film neither idealises nor fetishizes her nor does she ever come across as a passive force in her own story. The film can sometimes be a little too modern in its sensibilities which has the effect of simplifying some of the barriers that Colette had to overcome and smoothing the journey she had to make. There are enough bumps in the road to keep things interesting and it also helps that the film boasts some beautifully sumptuous sets and costumes and an evocative score accompanying it all. Westmoreland succeeds at telling the story he wans to tell, that of a woman who found her freedom and lived a fulfilling life on her own terms as much as any woman could possibly have done in 19th century France, and he does so very well. However it seems to me like there was a richer and more complex story to be told about a real-life figure who had much more to say.