Based on the boisterous life of the lauded writer and performer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, and directed by Wash Westmoreland, Colette is a charming period piece set in early 20th century France. After marrying the older author and critic, Henry Gauthier-Villars, and moving to Paris, Colette (Keira Knightley) eases into an ordinary domestic life; that is until she agrees to ghost-write a semi-autobiographical novel for her husband. “Claudine” becomes a scandalous sensation and grips an audience of young women who all aspire to be the effervescent, unbridled Claudine.
At the pinnacle of the book’s success, Henry (known as Willy in literary circles) is a staunch philanderer; he insists he loves and respects his wife—as long as she doesn’t interfere with his extramarital activities. Dominic West (The Affair, The Wire) does an excellent job in the role of Willy—he’s unspeakably irritating, but undeniably fun when paired in scenes with Knightley. Strengthening their back-and-forth relationship is the whip-smart dialogue written by Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer. Willy—the sicko that he is—eventually wheedles his wife into practising an open marriage and it doesn’t take very long for Collette to indulge in her own erotic yearnings with men and women. During her escapades, she even begins a serious relationship with cross-dressing Missy, played beautifully by Denise Gough—the film offering an unexpected take on trans identity in early 20th century France.
The strongest theme of the film is Colette’s empowerment and her determination not to be limited by her society. Colette is bold, scintillating and unapologetically set in the pursuit of her dreams, even when it disrupts the conventional norms of her time. The relevancy of this in the age of #MeToo and #TimesUp does not go unnoticed. This compelling story showcases Colette as a trail-blazer and an indelible voice; the film is sure to pique the interest of audience members who mightn’t have heard of the French literary treasure before.
The period drama queen, Keira Knightley, channels Colette with passion and gusto. Standout scenes include Colette confronting her husband in an effort to take back creative ownership of her work, only to be refused, to which she—with exhilarating vigour—crushes him with unflinching resolve. She is, after all “the real Claudine”, and it is she who brought them fortune and fame, even when Willy criticised her work for being “too feminine”.
Colette envelopes you into world of the early 20th century through its great camerawork, costumes and musical score. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens told Filmmaker magazine that he wanted the film “to feel French both in modern terms of lighting and respecting rigidly the sources, be it candle light, electric light or daylight.” Nuttgens’ attention to detail and his ability to emulate Willy and Colette’s dysfunctional relationship through his camera work is equally impressive. Andrea Flesch, the mastermind behind the beautiful Victorian costumes, captures Colette’s radical, and later androgynous style. Thomas Adès, a first-time musical composer for film, dazzles with his classical score that transports us back to this distinctive era.
Colette’s transcendence from domesticated spouse, to bisexual adventuress, literary icon and theatre performer is a story to behold. There hasn’t been a period drama quite like this before. If you have a penchant for dissenting French ladies throwing their inhibitions to the wind, you’ll certainly get a kick out of this! Knightley shines through her performance and leans into the role whole-heartedly, proving that Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette is the cool 20th century feminist icon we didn’t realise we needed. In a world that longs for more nuanced female stories and characters, Colette definitely hits all the high notes.
Colette is out in Perth’s selected cinemas now!