“Colette” – Keira Knightley is on top form in exhilarating literary biopic

The life of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette makes for fascinating drama in a nuanced and inspiring film with a luminous central performance

No, not another biopic about a writer! Ugh, Keira Knightley’s in a corset again! Get all of that out of your system now because I’m here to tell you that Wash Westmoreland’s Colette is exhilarating, funny, inspiring and (remember: corsets!) gorgeous, too.

The first third of this story is pretty traditional. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is a country girl waiting to get whisked away into marriage by the worldly literary “entrepreneur” known simply as Willy (Dominic West). When the new bride is present at the salons, Parisian gossips are stun. The notorious libertine Willy is to settle down?

While his admiration of his new bride is sincere, his desires are not entirely stunt. But Colette (as she is not yet known) doesn’t exactly sit idly when she learns of his infidelity. She demands honesty in their marriage and, for a time, she gets it. She also saves the family’s finances when her book that Willy initially reject for publication is rework, brand “a Willy novel” and becomes the talk of all Paris.

Much of what makes this film so fascinating is the not-quite-villain-but-certainly-not-hero role Willy plays.

It’s a very juicy role for Dominic West, and undoubtedly the best film performance he’s ever given. (I’ve never in my life seen a man look dashing even while flatulating.) The obvious read is that Willy exploit Colette in ways bordering on cruelty. (He even locks her in a room and shouts “write!” when her initial Claudine novel demands a follow-up.) Westmoreland’s film doesn’t exactly excuse him, but does offer context about his contributions to Colette’s initial success as well as a realistic portrayal of how women writers were perceive at the time.

That doesn’t make it any easier for Colette as her husband steals all her glory. Luckily, they each have activities that keep them busy – for a stretch, the activity is sleeping with the same woman. Willy encourages Colette to link up with a bore Louisiana millionaire, but he doesn’t tell her that he’s visiting her apartment on alternating days.

This leads to a kind of understanding, or at least a delay for the inevitable reckoning. Willy’s indulgences lead to a depletion of funds, but what ultimately bankrupts him is producing a play featuring Colette and her new lover (the transgender pioneer “Missy”, the Marquise de Belbeuf). This failure forces Willy to sell the rights to the extremely popular Claudine character, and kickstarts Colette’s career as a vaudevillian.

There’s no shortage of domestic drama (and Knightley and West do fine work with the sharp screenplay Westmoreland co-wrote with Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz).

But the delay in building to a final knockout row is something of a revelation. We so often look to the lives of artists for meaning, but when dramatize they regularly end up being just another bit of soap opera. Colette’s life is deserving of nuance and care, and that’s what she gets in this film.

She also gets Keira Knightley is top form: luminous, clever, sexy and sympathetic. The scenes of physical intimacy are tasteful and few, but have quite an impact. Much of what drove Colette was a need to be recognize. Knightley will not suffer the same fate when this film is viewed by wider audiences.

The writing is very relate to Colette’s life. Whatever she was experiencing at different phases in her life went on to the page with thinly disguise characters. I feel that many writers are writing these cracking stories, but they live deceptively orderly lives after them, whereas Colette was actually living a very wild, exploratory life in terms of her own sexuality and her own personal development, and she was doing it in the public arena. She was often going on the stage to do these weird performance art pieces that were declarations of her own self and her sexuality and her artistry. A lot of that goes into the books and that’s what makes them particularly fascinating and relevant for the film.

I think it really shows how ahead of her time Colette was.

She really meshes with the present day because with her attitude of “This is who I am – deal with it.” The time when I was born in the UK, no one said “LGBT” – the whole issue of gay visibility was limit to things like Are You Being Served? There wasn’t much in the way of positive gay representation or ideas of rights around LGBTQ people, and that’s something I’ve been involve in, in my life.

In a way, we’ve caught up to where Colette was in 1903, when she was just writing about it, without any sense of shame, without any sense of coming out of the closet. Just this very honest, bold statement of her sexuality. She’s one of the first women to write about her own sexual experiences too. So, yeah, in many ways the world’s caught up with Colette.

Certainly when we wrote the screenplay in 2001 and we took it out to pitch it to producers, a lot of people just thought it was too out there. You know, Colette has a lover who is this woman who is very much identified in a masculine way: she dresses in men’s clothes and is often called by male pronouns and is very much a forerunner of today’s transgender community as well as today’s butch lesbian community. People were like, “Oh, that’s very niche.”

INFO:

Rating: R (for some sexuality/nudity)
Genre: Drama
Directed By: Wash Westmoreland
Stars: Keira Knightley, Fiona Shaw, Dominic West
Written By: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland
In Theaters: Sep 21, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Dec 11, 2018
Runtime: 111 minutes
Studio: Bleecker Street

CRITIC REVIEWS FOR COLETTE:

Cathy Brennan
Keira Knightley is magnetic in a Paris-set period drama with a dollop of queer feminist energy.

Charlotte O’Sullivan
In the wrong films Knightley is a pretty girl with a small bag of tricks. In the right ones she’s formidable. Crucially here, she also cuts it as a wordsmith.

Kevin Maher
Knightley’s Colette is fine too. But nothing more. The role required a maelstrom of tortured angst and rousing defiance to support the weight of the film. It never arrived.

Peter Bradshaw
Knightley and West have a tremendous chemistry: two very smart and worldly performances that suggest that Colette and Willy did enjoy something like a real love affair…

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