Keira Knightly, never one to shy away from a corset, literary icon or fabulous historic woman, has found herself encapsulating all three in her latest project ‘Colette’ by ‘Still Alice’ director Wash Westmoreland, portraying the titular Nobel Prize nominee from the age of 19 to 33 - no easy task.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightly, ‘The Imitation Game’) is a sheltered country girl thrust into a passionate marriage with noted author and Parisian libertine Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West, ‘Pride’) or “Willy” as his nom de plume. When money gets scarce thanks to Willy’s ways, he makes Gabrielle (as she’s known at the time) yet another one of his ghost writers and tasks her with the assignment to write about her school days. When the book titled ‘Claudine à l’école’ or ‘Claudine at School’ becomes a smash hit and takes Paris by storm, Willy continues to whittle away at their fortunes while forcing Gabrielle to write more, even resorting to locking her in her office until he’s satisfied with her output. Marriage-wise, Colette (as she now goes by) begins to explore lesbian dalliances at the encouragement of her husband as he too engages in extramarital affairs. When writing becomes a living hell, Claudine becomes so popular that she dominates their lives. Colette’s relationships also become more passionate and freeing, and she starts to desire her own identity - and most importantly, credit where credit is due, her name on the Claudine series - much to the chagrin of Willy, fearing the exposure of their charade will be their undoing.
For anyone who knows even a little of its heroine, this sliver of time covered in ‘Colette’ may seem about as entertaining as reading the white pages by comparison, but as today’s audiences has proven and as millions of dollars in market research have shown, we the people love an origin story. Now Colette may not wear a cape, but eventually she does wear the pants - an act quite scandalous of the time. ’Colette’ serves as a window to the truth behind a myth and the legend. And what a legend she turned out to be: feminists may not like this angle, but while on the surface ‘Colette’ tells the tale of the woman behind the “great man”, underneath it all this is in fact a glimpse at the man that helped make the great woman. Consider Willy and Colette as a turn-of-the-century Sid and Nancy, with sex instead of drugs and their sharp wit, words and half truths in place of fists.
Underneath it all, this is a glimpse at the man that helped make the great woman.
While a wonderful and gloriously rich film which also serves as hauntingly modern in subject, feminist and queer themes and ideas, I couldn’t help but feel that it and Knightly’s fabulous performance suffer under the existence of 2008’s ‘The Duchess’ in which Keira portrays a not-too-dissimilar character. Already a critically superior film (and commercially only time will tell), is 10 years long distance to distinguish these two powerhouse ladies and portrayals? Meanwhile, filmmaker Wash Westmoreland has once again told this story rather tamely (a bit disappointing considering his early foray in the adult film industry), perhaps not to overshadow his heroine but when leaving so much of this woman’s extraordinary life in the tank - a life that’s enough to fill a hundred biopics - I feel like he’s done the real Colette a disservice. This is a woman who fought and struggled to step out of the shadows, and once in the light she wasn’t going back - and yet Westmoreland has shoved this wild peg into a round hole and trapped her there. Do yourself a favour and don’t research our dear Colette after you see this film. The more you know, the more her glorious sheen is taken away - but like me, if you do, you’ll wonder why this period of her life is the story they chose to focus on.