Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Starring Keira Knightley, Eleanor Tomlinson and Fiona Shaw
Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA rating: R for some sexuality/nudity
by Deborah Krieger
The thrust of Colette’s plot can be summed up in a single, momentary shot: As Colette (Keira Knightley) and her husband Willy (Dominic West, looking frightfully like Kenneth Branagh as Poirot), ride a tandem bicycle. Sitting in front, Willy lifts his feet from the pedals in a moment of playfulness, while Colette continues pedaling away, keeping them both moving forward. As the ghostwriter of Willy’s bestselling Claudine novels, Colette steadily works to pay the bills, while Willy enjoys the popularity and acclaim that result—until she’s had enough of being a tool, of being an attraction on Willy’s arm, of being half of the Brangelina of Belle Époque Paris. For every Watson and Crick, there’s a Rosalind Franklin.
A more conventional biopic would try to tell the whole story of the life of the writer born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, rushing through her exciting and scandalous life until we get Knightley slathered in old-age makeup, Going For That Oscar. (It’s still a movie where French people all have British accents, after all.) But thankfully, director Wash Westmoreland, who co-wrote the script, isn’t trying to be conventional. Instead, he focuses on a narrow window in Colette’s life—her decade-plus marriage to Willy—and shows us how and why she reinvented herself simply as Colette. Colette, the unapologetically queer woman who loved men and women alike; Colette, the woman who eventually walks away from Willy after one last betrayal and becomes a bestselling author and celebrity in her own right.
In a typical biographical film, we’d see that first meeting between young Sidonie-Gabrielle and the older distinguished Willy, that spark when they first fall in love. But when Colette opens, he’s a known quantity to Colette and her parents (Fiona Shaw and Robert Pugh): a visitor from the big city who arrives laden with stories and occasional gifts. The film primes you immediately to notice the unequal balance of power inherent in the Colette-Willy relationship, and you get the uneasy sense that Willy has been—if not grooming Colette—watching her grow up, and waiting for her to come of age before sweeping her up into his arms and spiriting her away to be his muse.
Willy clearly sees his marriage to Colette as fodder for his so-called artistic genius (despite endless dalliances with other women). He’s basically a 1890s James Patterson: a one-man factory assisted by (and eventually relying on) ghostwriters who, in turn, saturate the market with the Willy brand. He only recruits Colette as a ghostwriter out of sheer desperation because he can’t afford to pay the writers who already publish under his name. Being his wife, Colette works for free; if her labors bear fruit, Willy will have all of it. At first, Colette is awkwardly out of place in the fashionable salons and theaters of Paris—the classic country mouse in the big city—but Willy soon realizes that Colette’s own rural girlhood, with a little flourish here and there, can be commodified and sold. Claudine à l’école (published in 1900) tells the story of an adolescent girl who has an affair with her female schoolteacher and is obviously based on Colette’s own life. But more importantly, Claudine makes Colette and her background titillating, exotic, seductive to the jaded Parisians, because everyone knows it’s based on her, allowing Colette to take on a queer mystique of her own and act on her attraction to women. Soon enough, there’s a play based on the Claudine stories, and merchandising on everything from lingerie to cigarettes. Colette can merely watch, amused and baffled, as scores of young women get their hair cut in Colette’s “Claudine” bob and run around in black-and-white schoolgirl clothing.
Colette’s appreciation of queerness and queer history manifests in ways both obvious and subtle. Colette engages in passionate affairs with the American debutante George Raoul-Duval (played by Eleanor Tomlinson with honeyed Southern belle tones) and the Marquise Mathilde de Morny, known as Missy (Denise Gough), a true iconoclast who wears men’s clothing and answers to “he/his” pronouns. Missy proves to be a true friend to Colette, almost a soulmate of sorts, one of the few people who knows that Colette is the real writer of Claudine. But just as delightful as Colette and Missy sharing confidences and kisses is a shot that duplicates Gustave Caillebotte’s 1875 painting The Floor Scrapers. Caillebotte, one of the lesser-known Impressionists, is believed to have been gay, and The Floor Scrapers is an example of the artist celebrating the muscular male body at work.
It’s these subtle touches that all make sense when you realize that Colette is produced by Killer Films, which often produces films with queer themes: Todd Haynes’ Carol (and many of his other works), Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry, John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings, to name a few. Westmoreland is also openly gay, and co-wrote the script with his late husband Richard Glatzer. Colette is conscious of its position in Hollywood as a story of a queer woman (no one dies horribly in the end), and Colette’s exploration of being queer, and of being downright fetishized by Claudine fans, feels grounded in experience. There are several moments in the movie where it’s not clear if a woman looking longingly at Colette is interested in Colette herself, “Claudine,” or in merely transgressing.
Keira Knightley is always charming to watch, and is similarly captivating in Colette. She’s come full circle: first she was Jules in Bend it Like Beckham, a movie where the characters were originally supposed to date each other, not fight over their coach, and now she’s Colette. (I’m being facetious.) Colette has a fiercer, more simmering rage than many of Knightley’s previous roles, and her eventual breakaway from Willy, where, tears in her eyes, she asserts herself and her identity as “Claudine” (and as her own woman) is affecting and cathartic. Every woman who has been “the woman behind the man” knows that rage, the pain of having to hide their light under a bushel, and Knightley makes that declaration of independence (as it were) real.