BFI LFF Review: Colette (2018)

Keira Knightley dons a corset again to portray France’s greatest woman author Colette from country girlhood to scandalous adulthood in Wash Westmoreland’s Colette.

Dangerous Lucid Hour

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Colette’s Claudine series of sensational novels were compulsive reading that scandalised French society in the late 1890s/early 1900s. Her frank depictions of a girl growing into womanhood sold hugely – the 50 Shades of Grey of the day. Yet they were written at the behest of her womanising editor/author husband Henri Gauthier-Villars, known just as Willy (Dominic West) and published under his name. Even now this happens – it’s interesting to compare this with The Wife, where Glenn Close too is the secret author of her husband’s success.

Keira Knightley takes the young Gabrielle Sidonie Colette from a spirited country teenager living with her parents – Fiona Shaw is her mother, looking unnervingly like the Lizzie Borden’s step-mother she played in Lizzie, an almost contemporaneous setting. The young girl’s marriage to the older Willy takes her to Paris, where her natural wit and strong will enable her to carve out her own unconventional place in her marriage and in her husband’s social circle.

Adult Colette is a formidable, strong-willed character, bisexual at a time when there was no word for it, and also a talented best-selling writer, whose novels gave expression to female sensibilities. In the role, Knightley initially seems somewhat bloodless and not very French or passionate, but as the mature woman she inhabits the persona more warmly, and Colette’s intelligence, dash and dare, and supreme confidence in her own abilities comes across so that it’s understandable that she should fascinate both men and women as both sexes also attract her.

As Willy, Dominic West has a juicy role. He’s charismatic too, an entertaining raconteur, but also a louche spendthrift. His love for Colette somehow enables him to make sympathetic his exploitation of her. Her popular writing is the cash cow that staves off their bankruptcy and he’s happy to lock her in until she writes another novel.

At a time when women didn’t do such things, Colette changed her name, created an independent identity for herself and lived as a free spirit in a conventional society – and yet the force of her personality meant she got away with it. She and Willy had what is in effect an open marriage and, at one time, each of them was having an affair with the same woman (Eleanor Tomlinson, Poldark).

Eventually, Colette fought to have her work published under her own name. She went on to have a scandalous affair with a cross-dressing aristocrat Marquise de Belbeuf, known as Missy (Denise Gough), who may have been either transexual or lesbian – all this at a time when a woman might be arrested for wearing trousers – and incredibly she trained as a mime and actress, touring in her own show.

So director and co-screenwriter Wash Westmoreland has crafted what feels like a conventional costume biopic. It certainly starts conventionally but as it develops the very nature of Colette’s extraordinary life takes it into another realm. Though Colette is of her time, the Belle Epoque is conveyed through briskly modern dialogue. The film is unshowy – the revelations of the details of Colette’s life are fascinating – incredible, even – enough in themselves. It seems to speed through the latter part of her life and end rather abruptly, finishing what is a very full story yet to come with a series of titles.

Colette premiered in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival on 11, 12 and 13 October 2018 and is released on 11 January 2019 in the UK.

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