Wash Westmoreland’s fin-de-siècle biopic takes on the life of a prominent French female writer and performer Colette, a woman who pushed the boundaries of social norms in the Parisian bohemia.
We meet Gabrielle (Keira Knightley) when she’s still living with her parents, with prospects of marrying a successful writer Willy (Dominic West). Soon, they move to Paris as a newly-wed couple, where they spend their time on lavish pursuits. But their lifestyle can’t be easily sustained: when their financial troubles drive them to the edge, he employs his homebound wife as a ghostwriter. Initially unimpressed with her output, he decides to publish her novel in a fit of desperation. The first Claudine story, based on Colette’s experiences, becomes a smash hit that taps into the audience of a new group of avid readers: young women. As the audiences become hungry for more, Willy raises his writing profile, while Gabrielle doesn’t get much more than recognition as his wife and inspiration for the story.
After moving to Paris with her husband, Gabrielle is challenged with the environment that doesn’t seem to accept any variation from their social mores. Initially, it’s all about the small things that seem to get in the way: she gets scolded during a party for a “countryside dress” and isn’t impressed by the extravagances that the elite of literary salons seems to indulge in. The idea is “to present a personality with a capital P,” Willy instructs her, explaining that the only wait to be appreciated in their milieu is to move within the constraints of new ideas that won’t stir up a storm with an undesirable impact on their image. Controversy is good as long as it’s managed and helps to sell books – but the performative status of every action continuously disgruntles the protagonist, played to perfection by Knightley.
The film presents us with an interesting image of the antagonist, supported by a stellar performance from West. Established as a man of contradictions early on, he seems genuinely committed to his marriage and gives his wife a lot of freedom, but cheats when given an opportunity, explaining it just as “something that men do”. For Willy, romantic relationships seem to be defined through the lens of gender. He doesn’t consider Gabrielle’s romance with an American heiress (Eleanor Tomlison) an affair as long as she isn’t flirting with other men. He ridicules her budding connection to Missy (Denise Gough), a transgender man. Nothing is safe from being used as the material he considers worthy writing about: he isn’t reluctant when it comes to selling his wife’s memories and experiences to boost his own profile, and openly suggests things to act out in real life as an inspiration. When his wife becomes tired of the heroine she created, retiring Claudine doesn’t cross his mind for a second. Instead, he locks Colette in a room and gives her hourly quotas to make sure the new books see the light of the day. We witness the heroine’s liberation from his expectations as she does away with the transactional notion of their marriage: she demands honesty from the get-go and challenges her partner every time she feels marginalised in their relationship.
Colette helps to show the character’s journey with her style, overseen by Andrea Flesch (costume design) and Erzsébet Balogh, Comslémence Gaag and Judit Halász (a part of the hair and make-up team). From her initially traditional dresses and braided hair to fashion choices for Parisian ballrooms, dapper dandy suits and short hair, she’s transforming in front of us, challenging the expectations of her circle.
With a nuanced treatment of the author’s biography and wealth of spirited performances, Colette introduces us to a fascinating literary figure and the environment she finds herself in. With a script that thrives on characterisation and witty conversations penned by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland and Rebecca D. Lenkiewicz, it lets us understand the influence the pioneering writer had on the society.
Colette opens as a part of the London Film Festival. The film will be widely released in the UK on the 25th of January 2018.
- Colette (2018)