COLETTE (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW
Directed by: Wash Washmoreland
Produced by: Elizabeth Karlsen, Pamela Koffler, Michel Litvak and Christine Vachon.
Screenplay by: Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Wash Washmoreland
Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough etc.
**CONTAINS HISTORICAL SPOILERS**
In a coincidental twist of cultural fate I only recently became aware of turn-of-the-century novelist, libertine, bohemian and society trailblazer that was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. I’d been listening to a brilliant audio-documentary by Adam Roche, which was about Audrey Hepburn’s early life prior to becoming a Hollywood star. Interestingly, it was an elderly Colette who spotted the then unknown Helpburn filming a supporting role in Monte Carlo. Furthermore, it was Colette who insisted Hepburn was, despite her lack of stage experience, the ideal person to portray her famous creation Gigi on Broadway. Thus, even in later life Colette was to the fore of the cultural aesthetic; both a major talent and celebrity ripe for respect and admiration.
From her Claudine (1900) novels, to La Vagabond (1910) to Gigi (1944), Colette was a prolific writer of many books and short stories. She was also an actor, dancer and mime, who seemingly delighted in confronting the stuffy middle and upper classes of French society. Unashamed by on-stage nudity and choice of sexual parters, Colette had love affairs with both men and women. Not only did she break down sexual taboos, she also furthered gender equality and would be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.
The cinematic version of her life finds Keira Knightley portraying the titular character with a committed energy, verve and magnetism. Knightley has never been the most nuanced of actors but she is a striking movie star, delivering a fine performance here. Likewise, the ever reliable Dominic West is on excellent form as Henry Gaulthier-Villars – AKA ‘Willy’ – Colette’s first husband. West represents him as a charismatic cad with an insatiable lust for women, gambling and booze. While able to wow publishers with his sales pitches he relies on others to do the writing, while happily wasting the advances and royalties.
Willy sweeps the naive country girl Colette off her feet and introduces her to the artistic and literary circles of Paris. As such it is his connections which enable Colette to gain her first publishing success. However, it is Willy who takes all the plaudits, publishing under his own name. This authorial switch inevitably creates a dramatic schism as Colette fights for her name to be on the books. Willy refuses, highlighting both his own egomania and the sexist prejudice of the day. Like the similarly plotted biopic Big Eyes (2014), this film illustrates the nefarious nature of dominant masculinity; however, it also made me consider whether the artists would have been successful if it HADN’T been for these dastardly blokes. Who can tell? One would hope the talent of said artists would shine through come what may.
Structurally, Colette is very linear representing a “greatest hits” of how Colette progresses creatively, romantically and sexually. As aforementioned Knightly gives a fearless performance and the period setting is beautifully evoked within an excellently directed production. My only criticism is a fair amount of time was spent on Colette’s sexual exploits when I would have preferred more drama relating to her authorship battles with feckless Willy. Nonetheless, as period biopics go the film stands as a stylish and admiral tribute to a trailblazing feminist and literary icon.