|Original caricature by Jeff York of Keira Knightley in COLETTE (copyright 2018)|
Keira Knightley may have a reputation as the queen of corsets, suggesting a stuffiness to her work in the many period pieces she’s played, but her performances couldn’t be farther from that characterization. In THE DUCHESS, she infused Georgiana with a Princess Diana-style defiance of palace protocol. In A DANGEROUS METHOD, her Sabine Speilrein reveled in her outrageous perversity. Now, Knightley has taken on the role of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in the new biopic COLETTE, and she shines once again. She inhabits the role fully, bringing all of the character’s sexuality, ideas, and appetites to glorious life.
In fact, the whole film feels modern despite taking place in the late 19thcentury. Not only is Colette presented as a living-in-the-moment woman who continually challenges the patriarchy, but the film is infused with an energy more akin to contemporary storytelling. Director Wash Westmoreland, and his co-screenwriters Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer, never let any dust settle on this tale, even if it did take place over 120 years ago. Rather, they infuse it all with utter immediacy, from the snap, crackle, and pop of its pithy dialogue to the crisp clip of its editing. Colette was a woman ahead of her time, and the film strives to feel as modern.
At times, this film has a similar flavor to the kind that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn used to make together. Colette banters with her husband with a rat-a-tat delivery that gives the film joie de vivre, even during those moments where she challenges and angers him. He is successful Parisian author Henry Gauthier-Villars (the ever-roguish Dominic West), known by his pen name “Willy” and he’s both excited by Colette’s aggressiveness and intimidated by it.
Willy was older than Colette by 14 years when he married her in 1893, and they became intense friends, lovers, and rivals during their 13 years together. Many things challenged their love for each other throughout the course of their marriage, starting with Willy’s propensity to frequent prostitutes. Colette is offended by his wasting of money as much as his inability to rouse for her when he comes home, but soon, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. She too steps outside of marriage, only Colette is more progressive as she takes on female lovers.
At first, Colette’s lusty affair with the American Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) excites Willy as he begs his wife for juicy details. Soon, however, he is driven to compete with Colette, not wishing her to have the upper hand. He starts an affair with Georgie too, and it pushes Colette to turn elsewhere and keep him on defense. Soon, such competition between them will start dominating their relationship, particularly when Willy turns to Colette to bail him out of his debts. He implores her to write to earn money, but she turns out to be a far greater storyteller than he ever was.
Colette, despite some fits and starts, turns out to be natural at penning her feelings, probably because she’s living out loud as one who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Soon, she is writing prose with the same blunt truthfulness and lust for life that she’s living in her marriage. The pending results turn French society on its ear as her tomes are both sexually provocative as well as revelatory about a woman’s feelings.
What makes it almost comedic is the fact that female authors were rarely published back then, so her work must be done so under Willy’s name. It makes them rich and famous, but soon the denizens of France start to question whether a man could write such a candid and complex female perspective.
Then, as Willy relies on Colette for more and more stories about Claudine, the character grows in similar ways as she does. Her biography informs her alter ego’s adventures. As Colette starts to taste power and being unburdened, so does Claudine. It makes Willy very rich, but he becomes more and more insecure around his wife who has the upper hand in so many ways.
Soon, Colette starts to flex her muscles and lives as openly provocative as men. She pushes sexual boundaries, states her mind continually to whoever will listen, and doesn’t deny the rumors that she’s the actual author behind the bestselling novels. One of the cheekier visuals in the film is how Willy’s gut juts out, the more powerful she becomes. If he can’t equal her talent and chutzpah, by God, he’ll at least push her back with his stomach’s girth.
Westmoreland subtly mines similar metaphors throughout. When Colette and Willy ride a tandem bike together, Colette does all the pedaling. The man locks his wife in a room to force her to write for him, and a small, statue of him on the desk is dwarfed as she starts scratching out another masterpiece. And when she wears a man’s suit, it’s tailored to her feminine measurements and cuts a more handsome silhouette than he does in his clothes.
Colette starts to leave Willy in her wake, becoming involved with Missy, AKA Mathilde de Mornay, (Denise Gough), a wealthy noblewoman and earning her own living as a stage actress. It’s a feminist film, albeit a frothy one. It is serious about the issues of equality but never turns too dour or depressing. Instead, Colette continually rises throughout. That which does not kill her makes her stronger.
Knightley barely shows a naked breast as Colette, yet her sensuality is palpable throughout. She uses the tilt of her head, the curl of her lips, and the wicked side eyes she casts about to show the cat that Colette is, basking in all of her feline ways. At one point, Colette cups her lover’s face in her hands and Knightley makes it as passionate as most of the explicit scenes in BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR.
Every element of the movie feels equally as vivid, and Knightley’s take on the material Thomas Ades’ score is always in motion, surging forward with lush strings. The cinematography by Giles Nuttgens and the production design by Michael Carlin are so delectable, you’ll want to eat them. And Andrea Flesch’s exquisite costumes underline Colette’s carnality, rather than constrict it.
Perhaps COLETTE could have delved into some parts of her biography not as joyous. Her troubled relationships with her daughter and stepson never come up. The film also is stingy with her prose. Certainly, Willy was more scoundrel than bon vivant too, but this is a film that rejoices in Colette’s liberation instead of dwelling on her oppression. It celebrates with joy, similar to that she found no matter the circumstances. It makes for an entirely fitting tack to take.