When Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette wrote her debut novel under her libertine husband’s name Willy, she had no idea that the book ‘Claudine at School’ would be the first step towards her liberation, freedom and an ‘escape’ from the traditional heteronormative social values of the early 20th century Paris.
Raised in the south of France, Colette (Keira Knightley) is a mischievous and confident young lady; she is married off to Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a music critic and fin de siècle writer, for whom she quickly swaps the countryside for Paris. Her marriage to Willy turns out to be an unusual one; he quickly recognizes Colette’s talent for writing and encourages her to write while taking all the credit for a series of novels, titled ‘Claudine’. With each book comes a vast success, a success that celebrates Willy’s “writing talent”. Colette slowly rebels against her husband and embarks on a self-discovery voyage by having an affair d’amour with Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Missy (Denise Gough), Napoleon III’s “masculine-presenting” niece. This is where the movie is at its best; it explores Colette’s sexual desires and shows that she is not afraid to overcome societal constraints (a bold performance from Knightley and Tomlinson). Throughout her early life, Colette learns that there is more to life than just being a wife without a voice; she leaves Willy and joins a bohemian theatre troop performing on stages around France…
Wash Westmoreland’s biopic Colette depicts an early stage of the French novelist’s life, her first marriage and the beginnings of her career, as well as the process of emancipation. Set against the French metropolis and countryside, Westmoreland’s production might be lush… yet it lacks a spark. The filmmaker visibly struggles with the process of unfolding Colette’s life and turning it into a film. The end result may be an interesting biopic for the viewers who don’t know much about the novelist; but to those who do, it is merely a messy, unsatisfying and superficial portrait of one of the greatest female writers of the 20th century. Colette loses its steam 20 minutes into the film, and only gains some momentum towards the end. Even though Knightley does the best she can with her character, projecting her as vulnerable yet resilient, most of the production falls flat. As far as the supporting characters go – a couple of ghost writers, popping in and out of the screen like hot buns in a bakery – Westmoreland merely ignores them; it would have been so much better if the characters were better developed and took a more active role in the storyline.
Despite the flaws that the film has, Keira Knightley and Dominic West are a great duo and complement each other well. As much as Knightley’s talent is otherwise debatable, her portrayal of Colette is strong and likeable; the same goes for Dominic West; he is brilliant as the narcissistic and whiny Willy. The dialogue is witty, but ultimately, Colette is not really so much of an intimate portrayal of the novelist; it tells an almost trivial story. And yet, it is a story about an iconic writer who represents woman’s empowerment, sexual freedom and a victory in the battle against gender discrimination, a story that is relevant to the current situation of women around the globe.
Written by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Sanja Struna
Featured photo © Bleecker Street
All photos © Robert Viglasky for Bleecker Street