Opening in the UK this week, Colette comes sandwiched between all the brouhaha created by The Favourite and the expectations for another female-centred historical drama, Mary Queen of Scots, due out next week. It’s remarkable to have three films together like this and we are certainly blessed to have six excellent female actors in lead roles on our screens at the same time. I enjoyed Colette very much and I was particularly impressed by Keira Knightley as the titular character.
Colette is a ‘partial biopic’, covering the relatively short period in which Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette gets married as a 20 year-old in 1893 and publishes her first novel under her own name in 1910. She would go on to have a long, successful and influential career as a writer, being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. She died in 1954. This is the second film to focus on the early period of her career – Becoming Colette with Mathilda May in the lead and directed by Danny Huston was released in 1991. That title made little impact but the new film has some strong credentials with Knightley and Dominic West in the lead roles. It is directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous success saw Julianne Moore win an Oscar for Still Alice (2014). His new film was written some time ago with his husband Richard Glatzer who died in 2015. The original script was then worked on by Rebecca Lenkiewicz whose first two scripts for the cinema were Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013) for Pawel Pawlikowski and Disobedience (UK-US-Belgium 2017) for Sebastián Lelio. That’s quite a pedigree and for me the script is one of the major strengths of the film. The film’s producers include the well-known ‘American independent’ Christine Vachon and the British couple Stephen Woolley and Elizabeth Karlsen. These three were together on Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015). Wash Westmoreland was born in Leeds and emigrated to the US, but much of the creative input on the film is British. It’s an odd combination perhaps to have a UK-US film shot mainly in Hungary but with cultural content that is totally French. The producers took the sensible decision in my view to present the dialogue in relatively non-accented British English, although Colette’s writing is shown in French. What French audiences will make of the film I’m not sure, although it seems to have done reasonably well in Spain and Italy. I think Keira Knightley has a real international presence.
Gabrielle Colette married an older man, one of her father’s friends, Henry Gauthier-Villars, an unlikely husband for a young woman from rural Burgundy. Dominic West requires whiskers and a prosthetic paunch to capture the corporeal form of a man described variously as a ‘rake’ or ‘libertine’. He operated a ‘writing business’ in Paris, finding outlets for his own music reviews and also peddling the work of a team of ‘ghost writers’ producing ‘popular literature’. He made money and spent it just as quickly but he was generally a popular figure in fin de siècle Paris. At a moment of crisis he persuades Gabrielle to become one of his ghost writers. He discovers that she can indeed write and after ‘spicing up’ her first story with some suggestions he sells it under his own pseudonym, ‘Willy’. The book is a major commercial success detailing the largely autobiographical experiences of ‘Claudine’ – and reaching a new audience of young women. Soon, Gabrielle finds herself writing three more ‘Claudine’ novels, all published under Willy’s name but it becomes clear that several of their friends have suspicions that Gabrielle is the writer.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative, so I’ll just say that the material of the central section of the narrative sees Gabrielle starting to assert herself more forcefully in the relationship as she comes to terms with Willy’s world and develops her own interests. I don’t mean to suggest that she isn’t assertive throughout – her talent and personal qualities are there for all to see from the beginning – but she does have to adjust from being a country girl to a sophisticated Parisienne. Keira Knightley handles the transformation with great skill. She has to age from 20 to 37 over the course of the narrative and while Dominic West has his prostheses to hide behind (I understand they were very uncomfortable but he works well with them), Keira Knightley has only changing hairstyles and clothes, so her ability to change her movements and gestures to mark her increasing confidence and maturity is remarkable. The clothes are one of the highlights of the film and I wish I knew more about fashion in the period.
Gabrielle became associated with a kind of literary erotica (I think it took some time before her work was translated into English) and life with Willy soon saw his wife expanding her horizons in several ways including her sexual experiences and her circle of friends. Wash Westmoreland was at one time a director of gay porn films and that experience seems to have been beneficial in developing his understanding of how to handle the sexual relationships that develop in Colette. What might seem clumsily transgressive in a mainstream period drama works well here. Willy’s fetishes and Colette’s lesbian affairs produce scenes which are erotic in ways which I think are new in mainstream cinema. (I was amused by one American review that referred to “the dirty Downton Abbey period piece Colette“.) The American reviews generally seem to be less taken with the film than with those I’ve seen from the UK. Keira Knightley still means a blockbuster star of the Pirates franchise to some audiences in the US but for me her roles in Anna Karenina (2012), A Dangerous Method (2011) and a host of other specialised films are much more important. She has matured well as a star actor who uses her body well, especially when faced with an array of period costumes.
Colette deals with gender issues and I think that the story about the early years of a famous female writer’s career is getting compared to other films that have been promoted as part of the #MeToo discourse – and then seen as somehow not saying enough. It isn’t a daring, unconventional film. In some ways it is very conventional and it carries with it all the potential criticisms of a ‘partial biopic’. It’s beautifully photographed by Giles Nuttgens whose work I’ve admired on a wide range of films from Deepa Mehta’s Fire (India-Canada 1996) to David McKenzie’s Hell or High Water (US 2016). There is a well-chosen music soundtrack, no doubt slightly anachronistic, and I suspect that several historical details have been altered. But, unlike The Favourite, the film is coherent and I found it very entertaining. The two older women I followed out of the cinema sounded like they thoroughly enjoyed it as well. I should also credit the production design by Michael Carlin (who also designed The Duchess, starring Keira Knightley), costumes by Andrea Flesch (who was responsible for the costumes for The Duke of Burgundy)and an excellent supporting cast featuring Fiona Shaw as Gabrielle’s mother and Denis Gough as her lover.