Film Review: Colette

Anchored by superb turns from Keira Knightley and Dominic West, this timely and gorgeously shot account of a beloved French writer foregrounds Colette's remarkable freedom from conventional norms as she finds her artistic voice.
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A biopic about Colette is almost ridiculously perfect for the current moment. The celebrated French writer is often viewed as a proto-feminist icon who embodied women's empowerment through work, sexual freedom and an embrace of fluid gender. (Between her three marriages she enjoyed a rewarding long-term liaison with a woman.) If her sass and blithe indifference to conventional morality sometimes shocked fin-de-siècle Paris, it rhymes nicely with trends today. In a fine stroke of casting, the creative team behind Colette—Wash Westmoreland and his late husband Richard Glatzer—plucked Keira Knightley as the eponymous heroine. Knightley shines in period films (Anna Karenina, Pride & Prejudice) and here inflects Colette with a boldness and forthrightness that create a bridge between Belle Epoque Paris and today's zeitgeist.

Born Gabrielle-Sidonie Colette, she was a country girl with long braids and no dowry, living far from the cultural ferment of Paris, when she married Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West, pulling out all the stops and then some). Willy, as he was known, brought the 20-year-old into the bustling streets, flourishing salons, and his literary and artistic worlds—a heady mix that also included repo men arriving to haul off his furniture. Willy was a Gallic-flavored Casanova and hustler who fast-talked a stable of ghostwriters into churning out books in his name. Early in their marriage, Willy scented lucre in Colette's anecdotes about her schoolgirl days and hatched a fruitful scheme: co-opt his wife for his stable of writers.

With that was born the novel Claudine à l'école and a gaggle of other Claudines in a long-running series—penned by Colette, but bearing Willy's name. How could the filmmakers resist the famous scene (known to every Comp Lit student) when Willy locks Colette in her study at their country house to force more Claudines out of his golden goose? He may have contributed editorial tweaks—"Make it naughtier"—but Willy was essentially an early marketing genius who turned the series into a publishing sensation defining a new archetype: the teenager. Perhaps he created the first franchise, complete with spin-offs.

Though Colette surprises at every turn with the way it anticipates modern trends, the first act wants more dramatic action and is slow to find its way. Once Willy and Colette set up as an early celebrity couple, cutting a swathe through Parisian society with their amorous adventures, the film finds its groove. When Willy asks his wife's opinion of a new acquaintance, Colette responds, "It's the woman who interests me"—and we're off on a new plot thread. In this marriage, the couple are business partners and co-conspirators in romantic intrigues. After Willy horns in on Colette's liaison with an American heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson), Colette's outrage lacks conviction. True to the credo "Everything is material," she promptly weaves Willy's double-timing into the plot of her next book—Claudine en Ménage. (Happily, the French had a term handy for this.) If there's a constant in Colette, it's her refusal to play female victim.

But the couple's fortune has been built on the lie of Willy's authorship. When, to cover debts, he sells off the Claudines for a paltry sum, Colette has finally had enough. His desperate pleas reveal that his was the greater dependency; though exploitive, he was in thrall to her creativity and drive. Instrumental in pushing Colette to claim her own artistic voice is the alluring, gender-defying aristocrat, the Marquisede Belbeuf, or “Missy” (Denise Gough, fascinating), a calm, reassuring figure (and more of a man than Willy?). In her third act, with Missy urging her on, Colette reinvents herself as a mime and itinerant performer (sometimes bare-breasted) and hits the road. A virtuosic set-piecerevisits a performance at the Moulin Rouge when Missy and Colette kiss onstage, unleashing an uproar and shutting down the house. Out of her peripatetic actor's life, Colette pulled the memoir-ish, much-admired La Vagabonde, with her own name finally in place on the cover.

The filmmakers choose to track Colette's journey from country girl to her coming of age as an artist. This material will be well known to Colette's many readers. Arguably, a still more fascinating period in Colette's journey is the next stage, after she's assumed authorship of her own work and goes on to marry twice more. True to form, when husband #2 has an affair, Colette "retaliates" by seducing his handsome son. From this affair of the heart came Le Blé en herbe and aspects of Chéri. Perhaps there's a sequel in the wings?

In this first installment of Colette, the below-credits work is stellar: DP Gilles Nutgens bathes the screen in the sepia-tinted gaslight of salons and theatres—you can practically smell the interiors. Thomas Ades, celebrated British opera composer, drives the action forward with his soaring score. In a kind of legerdemain, this most Gallic of French writers is conveyed by a stellar cast of Brits without straining credibility. With judgment-free honesty and wit, Westmoreland's Colette recreates an iconic woman who forged a freewheeling life in tune with her truest impulses and left a body of work that speaks uncannily to our time. Colette, though, is never done surprising, and feminists today should not be too fast to claim her as one of their own. "Me, a feminist? You’re kidding,” Colette said in 1910. "You know what the suffragettes deserve? The whip and the harem.”