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 19th century. 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. Writer-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 the defensive. Soon, the competition between them will start dominating their relationship, particularly when Willy needs Colette to bail him out of his debts. He implores her to start writing novels to earn money and in doing so, she becomes 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 and live her life. Soon, her prose is being read throughout the city, with its citizenry delighting in her POV and blunt truth-telling about her history, marriage, and lust for life. It all turns French society on its ear as her tomes become landmarks of feminine expression and frank sexuality.
What makes it almost comedic is the fact that female authors were rarely published back then, so her work must be done under Willy’s name. The success of the books makes the couple rich and famous, even though Colette cannot claim authorship. But the more she steps out in public and draws the spotlight, the more 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 to stoke his reputation and earn money quicker than he can spend it, Colette’s stories about Claudine reflect her maturation and growing away from the need for men. In fact, Colette’s own biography becomes a mirror image for her alter ego. Colette starts to taste freedom, power, and being untethered to Willy, and so goes Claudine in her stories.
Soon, Colette starts to flex her muscles more, voicing her opinions in public and living as open and provocatively as Parisian men. She pushes norms, sexual boundaries, and welcomes rumors that she’s the actual author behind the bestselling novels. One of the cheekier visuals in the film is how as she steps out more, Willy’s gut juts out more too. 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 is leaving Willy in her wake, even becoming involved in a love affair with Missy, AKA Mathilde de Mornay, (Denise Gough), a wealthy noblewoman. The secret author also starts an acting career and earns her own living on stage. Throughout it all, Colette more and more becomes a serious film about feminism, despite its frothy spirit.
It is remarkably political, focusing on issues of equality and male oppression at every turn, yet the film never takes on a tone of helplessness or depression. Instead, Colette continually rises throughout, no matter what obstacles present themselves. That which does not kill her makes her stronger.
Knightley rises too, becoming even stronger in her performance and eclipsing a formidable talent such as West. And while she barely shows a naked breast as Colette, her vivid sensuality is palpable throughout. She uses the tilt of her head, the curl of her lips, and the wicked side-eyes she casts to show how feline a presence Colette is, basking in all of her wily ways. At one point, Colette cups her lover’s face in her hands and Knightley makes it so boldly passionate, it’s startling. In many ways, it as lusty and ribald 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 with lush strings. The cinematography by Giles Nuttgens and the production design by Michael Carlin are so yummy, you’ll want to devour 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 that were not as joyous. Her troubled relationships with her daughter and stepson never come up. The film also is stingy with her prose. (Show us even more how she writes and what she says!) And Willy certainly was more of a scoundrel than a bon vivant, but this is a film that dares to rejoice in Colette’s liberation rather than dwell on such overt negativity.
This is a movie that celebrates joy just as Colette did despite her continually trying circumstances. It’s a fitting tack to take and makes Colette one of the season’s brightest entertainments.
View the trailer below: