Director: Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw
Runtime: 1 Hour 51 Minutes
What It Is: After marrying a successful Parisian writer known universally as “Willy” (Dominic West), Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) is transplanted from her childhood home in rural France to the intellectual and artistic splendor of Paris. Soon after, Willy convinces Colette to ghostwrite for him. She pens a semi-autobiographical novel about a witty and brazen country girl named Claudine, sparking a bestseller and a cultural sensation. After its success, Colette and Willy become the talk of Paris and their adventures inspire additional Claudine novels. Colette’s fight over creative ownership and gender roles drives her to conquer societal constraints, revolutionizing literature, fashion and sexual expression.
What We Think: It’s not difficult to figure out why stories of women whose professional accomplishments have been usurped and overtaken by men would be suddenly appropriate to our current moment. Glenn Close picked up Oscar buzz in The Wife for playing a woman whose husband has been selected to receive the Nobel Prize in literature despite the fact that she’s been the pen behind the man for decades. And then there is Colette, the sexiest of these films, featuring Keira Knightley as the woman behind the nom de plume Colette, the author whose books created such a furor in turn of the century French and British cafe society.
Playing Knightley’s husband — always the heel in these kinds of stories, is Dominic West as Willy, who’s an oily, philandering dullard, yes. But credit to director Wash Westmoreland, who wrote the film with his late partner, Richard Glatzer, as well as Rebecca Lenkiewicz, that the relationship between Knightley’s Colette and West’s Willy remains sufficiently entangled and difficult through to the end. But make no mistake, it’s Knightly who is the show here. She’s an actress who’s spent plenty of time playing the in-over-her-head spitfire in big fancy costumes.. In Colette, she gets to have a bit more control of her affairs, and it’s a treat to see her cut loose with such sexy, astute, provocative material.
In the early 1900s, Gabrielle Colette is wife to Henry Gauthier-Villars, who writes novels under the moniker “Willy.” Their marriage is one of partnership: she writes his novels, while he introduces her to Parisian society. Colette takes eagerly to the bohemian life in Paris, and the books really blast off with the publication of the Claudine novels, which borrow liberally from their own lives. In particular, we see one romantic liaison where both Willy and Colette are carrying on an affair with the same woman — an American married to an old French moneyman — and the ways in which the emotional entanglements do and don’t present themselves are a bit fascinating. Later, Colette will develop a romance with another woman, Missy (Denise Gough), which pulls her even further into a kind of proto-queer social position.
Our Grade: B-, Not too much is openly made of Colette as an early queer icon, though it’s all right there for anyone to pick it up should they want to. There’s some dramatic weight that’s missing that might’ve pushed this over the edge from good to great, but as a showcase for an actress whose gifts are still flowering before us, it’s an easy recommendation.