Director: Wash Westmoreland
Screenplay: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough, Aiysha Hart
Runtime: 111 Minutes
Based upon the life of the French novelist Colette (Keira Knightley), this depicts the early years of a young woman who would go on to be one of the most celebrated authors and cultural figures in French history. Watching as her four early autobiographical novels belonging to the ‘Claudine’ series become best-sellers, at the sacrifice of her name not being attached to the releases, and instead the title of husband Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) under his publishing title ‘Willy’.
What’s most immediately fascinating and gradually unique about the film is that we don’t see her progress quite as expected for this (sadly) familiar story. Another film might see her strengthen from a trampled flower into a declarative figure of agency in the vein of more traditionally sold feminist tales in Hollywood, but right from the start is more than just wise beyond her years.
Though beginning in the opening scenes as a fish-out-of-water thrust into the high life, she takes to it without question and sustains her position as an outspoken creator who is wise beyond her years, merely maintaining the charade as a means of practice in the business arrangement that has become of their marriage.
Her arc is more about coming to the understanding that she can take power over her own work more than she can her husband or his approval, and that her work is an extension of her own potent and expressive liberation as well as the women finding solace in her words, and she is in some way losing her own identity to a fictitious rendition conjured by herself, encouraged by her impotent husband and taken from her by popular culture as women everywhere model themselves on Claudine’.
Much of this is helped by the performances of Knightley and West forming an unusual but dynamic and commanding double act. Knightley has been exhibiting her greater strengths for years in smaller projects, and she is sensational here from the wounded power in her eyes to the energy she exudes in pretty much any pose or outfit she dons.
While West is superbly squeamish and pathetically entitled in ways that add layers to the deeply problematic nature of his insecure masculinity, both as a figure of power in the cultural strata of early 20th century France and a contemporary parable to the state of men today, passing off his duplicity as the weakness of a man as if that placates him of any wrongdoing by pandering to Colette’s base instincts.
This is just a part of what makes the film feel so surprisingly prescient and forward-looking. Colette’s bisexuality is embellished and expanded into something far larger, as is her relationship with Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough) that went on openly as she was still married to Gauthier-Villars. Inspiring Colette’s evolution into a more androgynous entity as her physicality starts to change to suit her hobbies and standing, through both dress and conduct as she performs for audiences in the infamous pantomime, ‘Rêve d'Égypte’.
What it manages to explore in relation to sexuality, androgyny and the significance in the stifling of the female voice (at one point a male mime is seen performing while literally stealing the voice from a female singer just out of frame) and how this is accepted by complicit women as much as men.
It has much to say about class too. Colette’s status for luxuries in her world (electrical lighting) that are unavailable to others is also commented upon, and Colette’s very freedom to be able to write for a living stems from her position in high society and her access to the contacts and money shared by her husband
If there is a downside here, it may be in the direction. This is Wash Westmoreland’s first solo directorial feature since the death of partner and collaborator Richard Glatzer, both of whom delivered the powerful Still Alice some time back, and while handsome he doesn’t do quite as much with the staging or edit as would be hoped beyond a lush orchestral score from composer Thomas Adès.
There’s also a minor but prevalent issue with structure. The well-balanced screenplay by Glatzer, Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewicz manages to make its central characters living and breathing three-dimensional beings, but at times it feels a little too segmented into invisible sections where characters come and go without as lingering impact on anything going forward, including an odd plot cul-de-sac involving Eleanor Tomlinson’s debutant.
Although only depicting the beginnings of a long and healthy career, Colette is a multi-layered and arresting character study – a celebration of a life. It’s unexpectedly dense in its melange of themes concerning class, culture and femininity and leaves the audience chewing on it as the performances cover the heavy lifting duties.