Colette tells the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a fascinating woman who graced the streets of Paris in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Known predominantly for her countless novels, she also dabbled in the worlds of mime, art, journalism and dance. A fearless proto-feminist, she was undaunted by the historically taboo subject of female pleasure and eroticism. As TIME magazine once wrote, her novels typically featured the lives of ‘quietly desperate women in love and in bed’. The audacity of her work and the scandals of her love life earned her the distinction of a mononym, an honour rarely conferred upon women of her time. If any biography demands cinematic adaptation, it is Colette’s.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland and with a screenplay by Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, the film follows Colette (Kiera Knightly) during her early flirtations with Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a man fourteen years her senior, at her family home in Saint-Sauveur. After a hasty marriage, she is whisked away to their marital home in Paris, where she joins a circle of ghost writers whose work is light-heartedly passed off by Henry as his own. However, the film is far from a clichéd tale of a husband exploiting his young and wide-eyed wife. In reality, the relationship between the couple is rather more nuanced and (dare I say it) very French, insofar as both husband and wife reject convention and pursue marital polyamory.
The real Colette’s bisexuality is well-known, and this open attitude to gender and sexual fluidity is refreshing. Colette conforms to many period film tropes (including corsets galore), but the stereotypes and conventions of the time and genre are observed with a wry, sardonic humour in scenes vibrating with brilliant perspicuity. Colette herself was a consummate individual in a time of social repression, a character trait evidenced by her falling in love with Missy, a Marquise who defied the expectations of her gender by wearing male clothing. It was wonderful to watch a queer relationship unfold in such a setting, and in this way the film is very much a product of 2018.
Visually, Colette is a delight. The period setting is sumptuously detailed and lavishly French, taking us from the charming dilapidation of rural Burgundy to the well-furnished boudoirs and ornate railings of Parisian apartments. Through each of these scenes is woven Thomas Adès’s uplifting but beautifully understated score, transporting us to the relatively safe and characteristically languorous world of the film’s upper-middle-class characters. The costumes are fantastic too. Every outfit Kiera Knightley wears feels subtly androgynous, an impression which grows as Colette’s sense of independence progresses through the film.
While the visual aspects of the film are hard to fault, Colette falls short when it comes to details of the direction. Firstly, the decision to make all of the characters English without any attempt at a French accent results in a strong disconnect between their language and romantic European surroundings. This is only widened by the script and the delivery of the lines. Period dramas typically call for a clipped and affected tone of voice, but Knightley and West rally back and forth in the most casual of ways. Although this certainly suggests their indifference to convention, it also implies Westmoreland’s indifference to the important relationship between a character and the time and place in which they live. Their conversations could easily be transported to a more contemporary setting without feeling out of place.
The strange interjections of Henry farting and ‘going for a piss’ during their marital spats are also incredibly awkward. Westmoreland and Glatzer almost certainly meant to undermine the sense of pomp and solemnity expected of the couple’s class, and in some instances this human element works fantastically, bringing the idolised down from a pedestal and instilling some empathy into a character that may be otherwise be unreachable. But here it feels out of place. There is something to be said for preserving the cinematic quality of these films, and in an otherwise aristocratic, delicately detailed picture, this crassness was simply uncomfortable.
Dodgy screenplay aside, Colette is an enjoyable film, telling the story of a plucky girl maturing into a strong and empowered woman. Knightley’s monologue towards the film’s denouement – delivered in an unwavering close-up over Henry’s shoulder – steals the show. Her refusal to submit to marital suffocation, or the blatant plagiarism that he convinces her is for their combined benefit, results in a powerful feminist message. Colette comes to realise her own worth, and the final remarks on the real Colette’s life before the credits roll leave you beaming.
Colette is an aptly-timed film, which gives a female audience hope in a political climate which often leaves us in despair. As Missy makes clear, Colette’s books gave women a voice, and this film demonstrates the power of using that voice and refusing to be silent.