*** out of ****
(for some sexuality/nudity and language)
Released: September 21, 2018 limited; October 12 wide
Runtime: 111 minutes
Directed by: Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough
The period-piece lesbian sex is the least interesting thing about Colette.
Serving as little more than titillating soft core interstitials, the sexual awakening of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) at the dawn of the 20th Century is not what her biopic should be about. Thankfully, director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) — a gay man himself — agrees.
Colette’s story is about more than even its primary hook, i.e. a woman penning books under her husband’s name so that they’ll sell.
There’s richer psychological, emotional, and ethical terrain to explore in this captivating look at a very complicated marriage that becomes a tense business collaboration, all forged on surprising compromises, set one-hundred years before women had a #MeToo movement at their backs.
That’s the story…eventually.
Undistinguished for its first forty minutes, Colette initially coasts as a run-of-the-mill costume drama: a beautiful young woman marries an older, wealthier man and acclimates to her new role in society life. The film’s first act, though handsomely made, slogs through this familiar territory.
But then Colette begins to write, and that’s when her story becomes fascinating.
Her husband, Willy Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West, of Showtime’s The Affair) was a writer and publisher of note, a brand unto himself. His power and influence was such that he had ghostwriters on staff to keep up the pace (and improve the quality) of his output. He was much more a business tycoon than a literary giant.
Colette, who had dabbled in prose before, sets out to write a proper novel. The result: a debut entry in what would become the “Claudine” series, stories that followed a 15-year-old girl from her teenage years on through adulthood. These wildly popular books were scandalous for their time (fueling their popularity) and, for Colette, essentially autobiographical.
Yet they were all published under Willy’s name.
The film’s narrative portrays this conflict between Willy and Colette — as artists, spouses, and business associates — in more intriguing ways than Colette simply being enraged by the injustice of her husband receiving all of the credit. Yes, there’s that, but as her artistic integrity clashes with his unscrupulous but shrewd business practices, an unexpected admiration and partnership forms.
The tensions never dissolve; indeed, they become amplified through Willy’s manipulative, boorish, controlling behavior. But that behavior reaps successful ends, not just financially but also artistically. Colette becomes a better writer.
These ends don’t justify the means, certainly, but the means paid off. A lesser (and less interesting) film wouldn’t concede that. Willy may not have challenged the system, but he sure knew how to work that system. And in Willy’s amorality, he essentially encourages Colette’s same-sex dalliances because they spark inspiration for her writing.
Most films would play these events and Colette’s response to them strictly from an aggrieved 21st Century perspective, but Westmoreland wisely doesn’t. And when Willy gets caught in various schemes and even betrayals, Dominic West doesn’t play them as if he’s getting caught. Instead, Willy defends his actions; ones that, despite being completely and totally wrong by modern standards, they kinda-sorta made sense by the accepted mores of the time.
And Colette knows how to rebound from these hurts and heartbreaks (which can be devastating) to use them to her — and their — advantage.
This makes the portrayal more accurate to the time, and not some simplified self-righteous hindsight condemnation of the patriarchy (although the patriarchy is certainly given no grace or quarter).
It also makes Colette’s decisions to judiciously placate to the patriarchal norms as savvy, not weak, and even strong. She’s seen here as a woman who fought for her principles, but one who also knew when and where to pick her battles, which hills to die on and which ones to cede. Knightley imbues all of that with an intense, riveting agency. She and West are dynamite together.
As a filmmaker, Westmoreland takes this century-old story about a gender non-conforming groundbreaker and, even in his thematic advocacy, decides not to virtue signal all over it. That’s refreshing, more truthful, more provocative, more effective, and definitely more entertaining.