French novelist and feminist icon Colette, nee Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, has been ripe for a biographical film for some time. She was an institution at the time of her death in 1954, and her life was filled with enough glamor, struggle, and scandal to more than warrant the fever-pitched drama that’s the mainstay of the celebrity biopic. Wash Westmoreland’s Colette indulges in such theatricality while delivering an acutely told story of the eponymous writer that relishes the messy details and ambivalences of her life.
Following Colette’s (Keira Knightley) formative years, from the mid-1890s until 1910, the film tracks her development from a penniless country girl to her rise to literary fame. Westmoreland opens on a visit from Colette’s soon-to-be husband, Henry-Gauthier Villars (Dominic West), a corpulent literary entrepreneur and walking phallus who, of course, goes by Willy, his nom-de-plume. He’s a pompous lecher, but his Gallic-ness charms Collette. Soon, they move to Paris, spending their nights at decadent parties and sleeping with—and fighting over—various women. And throughout these scenes, Westmoreland’s eye for the bawdy and the sumptuous is unmistakable.
Despite some hesitation about her new surroundings, Colette comes to fit in, nurturing a taste for the sensuous that in a modern light appears revolutionary for its self-sufficiency. By day, she works in Willy’s struggling literary “factory,” eventually producing the sexually frank, scandalous, and wildly successful Claudine novels, published under Willy’s name and extracted from her via home imprisonment by her husband, launching the two to literary stardom and setting the stage for Colette’s fight for recognition.
In order to navigate the social scene of fin-de-siècle Paris, Colette has to constantly stifle her emotions. Often it seems as if she’s unsure of what she’s feeling, and Knightley acutely charts her character’s emotional undercurrents. Her performance accentuates the hesitancies, anger, and boredom bubbling just under the surface as Colette attempts to maintain her veneer of contentment. When Willy rejects her first draft of Claudine at School, she remarks, with a mix of resignation and barely concealed (and enraged) dismay: “I don’t need to leave my mark on the world.” Knightley delivers an explosive final monologue that’s par for the course in the genre, but it’s when she brings forth Colette’s simmering conflicts of desire that her character resonates. In such moments, we can see the full breadth of Colette’s many personae: a simplicity-loving country girl, a socialite with an attraction for glamor, a writer fabricating fantasy, and a heroine living her truth.
The film’s script is witty and largely focuses on the dynamism of Willy and Colette’s marriage, namely their propensity for barded back-and-forths. In a debate with Willy, Colette shoots at him, “I can read you like the top line at an optometrist’s office.” While the real Colette would later compare her marriage to sticking pins into her hand, the film emphasizes the charms that kept the couple together for as long as they did. Their relationship, despite its grossly exploitative nature, is often exciting for Colette and hinges on a mutual respect for each other’s sexual desires that doesn’t boil down to mere tolerance. This nuanced perspective on Colette’s marriage helps us understand its dynamics, making the injustice done to her clear while preserving her agency and without stoking sympathy for Willy.
Of course, Colette doesn’t stay under Willy’s shadow for long. Her push for independence is encouraged by her affair with noblewoman and artist Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), who goes by Missy and scandalizes France with her masculine dress and choice of male pronouns. Her romance with Colette is doubtlessly observed but not tended to in detail. The film regrettably makes Missy little more than a mouthpiece for a modern perspective on Colette. “You’ve invented a type,” she reminds her lover (and presumably us) regarding the impact of Collette’s novels as they pass young women in Claudine outfits. In a film that’s otherwise keen enough to let its contemporary resonances speak for themselves, Missy’s blunt acknowledgements of Colette’s trendiness feel redundant and didactic.
It’s the film’s concerted emphasis on Colette’s ambivalent nature and desires that reveals her to be an artist just ahead of her time, fighting against—yet seduced by—her present. Colette is much too focused on its heroine’s idiosyncrasies and personal struggles to cast her as a renegade out to shake up the status quo, but it feels good to cheer for her when she inevitably does.