It's awards season and there are a lot of films to get through. There's also this period drama about a female writer in late 19th century Paris – which sounds like a movie that Keira Knightley has done before. But do yourself a favour. Don't miss out on Colette.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice, Quinceanera) the film is based on the real story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), who, under her pen name, Colette, became one the most celebrated female French novelists in the country's history. Of course, patriarchy being what it is, it took a while for people to even realise that a woman was behind the best-selling Claudine novels, which were published under her husband Willy's (Dominic West) name.
Willy is the late 19th century equivalent of an influencer, a decadent libertine who presides over a stable of writers who ghostwrite magazine articles and novels for him. Born Henry Gauthier-Villars, Willy (like Madonna and Cher after him, he goes by one name) creates and lives the brand, and they sustain it with actual work. But of course, such a man needs a wife. That's where Colette comes in. Born in the country village of Saint-Sauveur, she's known and admired Willy her entire life, and is eager to join him in his fabulous Parisian existence.
So far, we remain firmly entrenched in the only-the-right-man-can-help-woman-achieve-her-potential trope. But thankfully, Colette doesn't stay there for long, and neither does Colette herself, who quickly becomes disillusioned with her husband's philandering and spendthrift ways, and seeks other avenues to come into her own. Still, when Willy asks her to try her hand at writing for him, she accepts, and to her surprise, she enjoys it. That is, up until Willy reads her work and dismisses it as "too cloying" and "feminine" — "there are too many adjectives!"
So, the novel stays buried in Willy's desk until a gambling debt forces him to try to sell it to his publisher. Claudine a l'école (Claudine At School) is an overnight sensation: the story of a young girl determined to make it beyond the village where she was born resonates with female readers, who see themselves in the character Colette has created.
The story of a woman finding her voice and fighting to be heard in a man's world is one that holds obvious parallels to today. Reading the initial reviews for Claudine, Willy exclaims that "it took an extraordinary man to define this modern young woman," a line that could honestly have come from this month's issue of Harper's or the New York Review of Books. But while it's satisfying to see Colette succeed against all odds, that would make for a preachy film on its own. Luckily, Colette operates in the grey areas, examining the fraught intersection of class, privilege, gender, sexuality, and race.
We tend to think of history as a forward trajectory of progress, but Colette posits that it's actually cyclical. Early 20th century Paris was a breeding ground for ideas, art, and creativity, similar to the trendy metropolises of today. Just take Missy (Denise Gough), Colette's lover in the latter half of the film, and a real historical figure of the French aristocracy. As Napoleon III’s niece, the masculine-presenting Matilde de Morny (nicknamed Missy by friends) was able to divorce his husband and wear men's clothing in public, an early experimentation with gender and identity that was permitted only to the very rich, already secure in their social standing.
Still, while tolerated, Missy raises eyebrows, and Colette doesn't gloss over the real struggles faced by gender non-conforming people in a society that was still overwhelmingly conservative. "Words are either masculine or feminine. There's no word for Missy," Willy tells Colette at one point. Even the relationship between Colette and Willy skirts the boundaries of bourgeois morality, while never quite escaping it. Yes, they can both have affairs, but Willy only tolerates Colette's because she's sleeping with other women, which he doesn't see as a threat to his own masculinity. What's more, as the man in the marriage, he legally still holds total sway over the couple's finances, a fact that becomes more and more problematic as Colette's star rises, and Willy's dims. (See, you don't even have to wait two more weeks for A Star Is Born!)
But beyond the big ideas that anchor the screenplay by Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer, and Rebecca D. Lenkiewicz, there are also more superficial reasons to see Colette, namely Andrea Flesch's magnificent costumes. Mirroring the social turmoil and change of Colette's environment, her wardrobe goes from lacy high-colored dresses with mutton-chop sleeves to chic, tailored skirts and jackets. Likewise, Colette's long braids, a symbol of well-bred femininity, are cut into a fashionable, androgynous bob as she herself becomes a cutting-edge symbol of the modern woman. Michael Carlin's production design is equally impressive, with the lush, decadent Paris interiors contrasting with the natural splendor of Colette's beloved country fields.
Knightley gives a strong performance that runs the spectrum from the meek shyness of Colette’s early days in Paris, to her rise as the era's It Girl, and her eventual embracing of her scandalous reputation. (Also, could anyone else make period clothing look as fabulous?) As for West, he's clearly living his best life as the bon vivant Willy, to the point that you can't really hate him for being a pompous ass — he's such an endearing one.
The overall result is a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking film that will have you question what you know about the past, and how it bleeds into our present – and possibly our future.
Collette Hits UK Cinemas On 11 January 2019