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‘Colette’ Brings Feminist Levity to Belle Epoque France

Dir. Wash Westmoreland—4 STARS

'Colette' still
Dominic West stars as Willy and Keira Knightley as Colette in "Colette" (2018), directed by Wash Westmoreland.

“Women writers don’t sell,” proclaims our eponymous heroine’s controlling “literary entrepreneur” husband Willy (a fabulously smarmy Dominic West) about halfway through “Colette.” The irony is rich — and not only because the real Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette ultimately became one of the greatest prose writers of the early 20th Century. Just as Colette (Keira Knightley) keeps her wayward husband afloat by ghostwriting novels that are “the toast of Paris,” so too does Knightley carry the biopic from beginning to end. Based on a remarkable true story, “Colette” is less a period piece and more a seductive and cheerful romp through one woman’s dramatic actualization of her physical and intellectual autonomy.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette leads a bucolic life in the French countryside before her passionate romance with Willy, who marries this provincial girl and transports her into the big city. Willy then parades Colette around his wealthy literary Parisian scene, which the movie paints in a beautifully scored, whirlwind edit of shi-shi cocktail parties and well-choreographed waltzes. We follow Knightley’s expressive face from afar as she takes it all in, at once disgusted and intrigued by the opulence and pretension she sees around her. This push and pull within Colette, her simultaneous revilement of and attraction to her luxurious surroundings as she grows into them, pervades the film with an appealing nuance.

Due to Willy’s extravagant spending habits on everything from gambling to other women, his novel-making factory struggles to get by, and so he enlists Colette to write her “schoolgirl stories” under his name. The rest is indeed history: The “Claudine” series, ostensibly written by Willy, flies off the shelves. Yet behind the scenes, Willy becomes increasingly demanding and obsessive, bribing his wife into writing more by purchasing her a country house and locking Colette into a room with nothing but a typewriter when she refuses to write another story for him. Though played somewhat for laughs, Willy’s abusive behavior is no joke, and Colette finds her own small ways to rebel against him at first — making her own friends, for example, and pursuing interpretive dance as a hobby. Where the movie (and indeed the historical narrative) divulges from the conventional is Colette’s foray into lesbian relationships and experimentation with her gender expression. The film’s decidedly radical-for-the-time depictions of narratives that are, today, frequently explored themes, would seem like a millennial spin on the period piece genre, until one remembers that the real Colette was practicing gender and sexual fluidity far before such behaviors were cool — when it was still in fact illegal for common women to wear pants.

As always, Knightley embodies her petticoats and lace frocks with conviction — though here she swaps out the corset for an occasional dapper suit. Her innate defiance is given full room to breathe in this film, after being employed many times over in Romantic period dramas that require a repressed, steely gaze from a classically beautiful waif. It should be mentioned that Knightley embodies the distinct queerness of this film with authentic aplomb — no surprise to those of us who have adored the actress since her turn as a sporty, sexually ambiguous gamine in “Bend It Like Beckham” (2002). And “Colette” on its whole, in depicting both straight and lesbian sexual encounters, is not only relatively progressive, but also quite sensual. Willy and Colette develop a complex bedroom politic, one that ultimately involves them sleeping with the same woman. “When you bat your eyelids it’s as if you are taking off my clothes,” murmurs Collette in her first female dalliance. A bare, heaving bosom is lingered on; facial expressions in climax abound. Yet the salaciousness stays highbrow and tightly edited — perhaps due to director Wash Westmoreland’s previous experience helming well-reviewed gay pornographic films.

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The movie does lose steam in the third act, as the somewhat fantastical plot points of this true story force Westmoreland to hit some odd beats. Although Colette’s scandalous pseudo-Egyptian dance number at the Moulin Rouge with her masculine-of-center aristocrat lover Missy (Denise Gough) did actually occur, the lengthy scene feels like a disjointed tonal interlude within the scope of the film. And Westmoreland checks the boxes of the saga’s later years without much exposition, other than Willy’s beard getting grayer and his stomach growing larger with each passing scene. But through it all, Colette is steadfast, fettering her indignation until she finally explodes at Willy with deeply satisfying eloquence.

Despite its few missteps towards the end, the film ultimately reaches a smart, satisfying conclusion. In the final sequence, the camera zooms in close on Knightley’s fierce face. Heavy liner frames her darting eyes, as dark as the two forceful lines that recur under Colette’s signature. She has claimed the gaze of the spectator, the title of artist that was so wrongfully denied from her for so many years. Finally, Colette is a woman in full possession of herself — and that makes her a renegade in any era.

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