Colette is less interested in the infamous works of Colette than it is in Colette the person. Gabrielle Colette was a prolific French novelist from the latter half of the 19th century to the early portion of the 20th century. For a movie about a French novelist, starring British actors, not even attempting to have French accents, Colette is breathtaking.
Keira Knightley plays Colette with grace and vibrancy. Even in the beginning, Knightley’s Colette has a remarkable sense of wonder mixed with a sharp wit. A country girl without a dowry she is considered lucky to have landed the boisterous and loquacious Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). Henry goes by Willy and is a much older man who was in the army with her father.
Willy is a man ahead of his time. He runs a small literary magazine from his apartment and has a wild-eyed passion for branding. Willy puts his name on everything from the magazine to the story he begs Colette to write so they have something to put in the latest issue.
Stunned that Colette’s book, and its main character, Claudine, is a massive hit, Willy is overjoyed. Beset by debtors and repossessors he’s finally found a goose who lays a golden egg, his wife. What’s more, Willy has discovered a new audience, women. A fact he embraces by putting Claudine’s name on soaps, hats, and anything else that will hold the print.
Wash Westmoreland is utterly uninterested in Colette’s literary career or even her peers. He is fascinated by Colette herself though. When she finds out Willy is having an affair she is outraged because he lied. Colette and Willy’s relationship is the focal point of Colette. At least it is in the beginning.
Colette and Willy reach an understanding of sorts. After being caught in another affair Willy claims it is beyond his control, “I’m a man. Cursed with these lowly carnal needs. ” Strikingly Colette is less angered by his infidelities than by his lies.
While at a party Willy sees Colette flirting with a young man and his wife. Outraged he chides her on the way home. “Your jealousy is misplaced. It was the wife I was interested in.” Willy’s anger vanishes and is replaced with understanding.
Colette and Willy make a new agreement. What’s good for the goose is also good for the gander, so far as the gander only sleeps with other ganders. Even then Willy is unable to not have his mark on her affairs. When Colette begins a clandestine affair with Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomilson), Willy secretly has one with her as well.
Westmoreland doesn’t play this as comical. He uses the situation as a comment that Colette is barely allowed anything that isn’t hers and hers alone. Even when it comes to her sexuality. The Claudine books are flying off the shelves and Willy is the toast of Paris. Colette is perfectly fine with all of this because for her it’s merely something she does for Willy and not for her.
In the beginning, Willy and Colette seemed tailor-made for each other. They don’t have arguments so much as verbal sparring matches. Colette’s refusal to be timid often takes Willy back and forces him to explain himself when she calls him out on his lies or silly beliefs. But Willy is sincere when he says Colette has talent. “It’s a little too literary. It needs spicing up for the masses, more melodrama, and more adjectives.”
But as Colette goes along we begin to see Willy’s utter selfishness. When Colette refuses to write another Claudine book, Willy throws her into a room, locks the door, and refuses to let her out until she has some pages. The scene as Westmoreland shoots it, is terrifying in its banality. The overbearing score dampens the impact but only slightly.
Later on, Willy jokingly tells Colette “I should lock you in the room again to get you to write.” Colette doesn’t see the humor in his remark. Her retort wipes the grin off of Willy’s face. A sign that she’s outgrowing him. Her growth is partly due to her affair with Mathilde de Morny (Denise Pough). A woman with short hair dresses in suits, and seems to enjoy the pronoun “he”.
Willy is fine with the affair. He has one of his own with Meg (Shannon Tarbet) a girl younger than Willy and Colette. The arrangement, like the previous ones, works quite nicely. The four often go to Colette’s house in the country together. Although Willy seems mystified by Colette’s attraction to “Missy”. “Isn’t something missing?” Colette smirks, “Like what?”
Westmoreland cheekily cuts to a scene of Missy thrusting her hips as Colette writhes on the bed. Colette’s pleasure and enjoyment, or sometimes lack of, is the key to these sex scenes. Rarely are full body shots used. Westmoreland and Giles Nuttgens, the cinematographer, focus on the faces.
Colette looks gorgeous. At times certain scenes look like something ripped from a Georges Seurat painting. The meticulousness of the production design is kept to the background though. While Willy and Colette’s dingy cramped apartment has a character all its own, they take care to never let it steal the spotlight.
West and Knightley have a kinetic and sparkling chemistry. West has a way of swaggering drunkenly that allows us to see how Colette might have fallen in love with him. Though, it’s the times when the veneer drops that we begin to wonder how she could stay with him.
Knightley, as stated earlier is sublime. Her Colette is such a complete performance that it almost doesn’t seem like acting. She’s not just playing a woman embracing her bisexuality and dressing up in suits. It’s much more than that. Knightley is playing a woman coming into her own identity. From the shy country girl to the wife of a literary elite to a woman known for her own accomplishments.
Colette so hates writing that she quits and becomes a pantomime actress. Missy and she put on shows ranging from erotic burlesque to romantic comedies. Throughout Colette, multiple women tell Willy, “I am Claudine.” Either to show how much of a fan they are or as some kind of foreplay. But the line takes on an electric power and meaning when Colette finally leaves Willy; using that very line as her declaration of self.
While touring with her pantomime troupe she stumbles upon a blank journal. Like any writer, she hates the act of writing. Also, like most writers, she can’t stand the sight of an empty journal. It’s only when Colette begins to write for herself that she begins to enjoy writing in any meaningful sense.
The script by Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and Richard Glatzer skips large swaths of times. Still, it never feels fractured. The time jumps lend Colette the feeling as if one was reading a book. As if each time jump is a new chapter in her life. Lenkiewicz worked on Disobedience, a film about, among many things, a devout Jewish woman coming to terms with her lesbianism. It too was about women coming into their own in ways not defined by the men in their lives.
Colette is the type of movie where the actors don’t speak the language, or the accents, of the characters they portray. Westmoreland and Nuttgens have montages of Colette writing in French as Knightley narrates in English. Fiona Shaw as Colette’s mother is criminally underused. Shaw is a living legend and an astounding actress. She delivers a stirring portrait of a woman both proud and worried for her daughter.
Much like Angela Robinson’s Professor Marsten and the Wonder Women or Christopher Hampton’s Carrington, Collete looks at unconventional relationships. Westmoreland doesn’t dissect or interrogate these relationships. Far from it he merely sits back and marvels at the different ways people love. It’s no coincidence that the “typical” relationship between Willy and Colette is the most stifling and the least rewarding. Thankfully, Colette both as a film and as a character is precisely the opposite.