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An enjoyable account of how France’s most famous female author came out of the closet in more ways than one, Wash Westmoreland’s Colette casts Keira Knightley as the country girl whose literary gifts (with the help of salacious plotlines) outshone those of all the male writers around her, including her celebrated husband. Skeptics may grouse that a movie about the creme de la creme of Paris is cast entirely with English actors, but this is not a film for the highest of highbrows. Taken on its terms, it is an engaging literary coming-of-age story, and one embodied ably by its star.
We meet Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette as a pigtailed teen living in a corner of Burgundy. A substantially older family friend from Paris (Dominic West’s Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy) comes calling from time to time, spewing his views on the Parisian arts scene; only after his visits does Colette sneak off to a nearby barn to roll in the hay with him.
The two are married, and he brings her to Paris, where he’s a notorious libertine and she takes some time embracing local fashions. The movie really hasn’t bothered introducing Willy properly, but we come to understand that he’s something of a literary impresario, hiring many ghostwriters to pen the stories and reviews he publishes under his own name. (As with Willy, his underpaid writers walk in and out of scenes as if we’re supposed to know who they are already.)
Willy puts Colette to work writing his correspondence. Despite his local fame — we don’t see enough of the wit for which he’s famous, though West makes his gifts as a hustler evident — Willy is always on the brink of poverty. He could, of course, stop the gambling and wining-dining-whoring to save some money, but Willy has a better idea: He tells Colette she should write a novel, using stories she has told him of her youth, to bring in some cash.
She finds herself loving that work, hands the manuscript over proudly, and is crestfallen when Willy says it’s lovely but unpublishable. Only years later, as he’s cleaning her pages out of his desk so the repo men can take it away, does he see the potential: He sits down with Colette to play up the story’s naughty-schoolgirl aspect. The resulting book, Claudine at School — published under Willy’s name, not hers — is an instant smash hit.
Colette has already tantalized Willy by admitting to being attracted to women, but as the couple’s fame grows she begins to live out these fantasies with his encouragement. The film starts to come to life as she has her first rendezvous with a “wayward American debutante” (Eleanor Tomlinson); the moments before their first tryst are sexier than almost all of the slightly racy scenes to come. But Willy decides to have a parallel affair with the same woman, keeping it a secret instead of trying things out as a threesome. (The French have a name for this, don’t they?) And by keeping it secret from Colette (like his other previous affairs), he wrecks the whole thing. Amusingly, the film has husband and wife resolve things not with a blow-out argument but via an editing session on Colette’s third novel, which lightly fictionalizes the whole episode.
This high-profile film about a turn-of-the-century woman who insisted on independence will inevitably be written about in terms of feminism circa 2018. (Press notes prompt eye-rolls, or worse, by offering the handy hashtag “#COLETTE TOO.”) But it takes a long time for Westmoreland and the script (which he co-wrote with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and his late partner Richard Glatzer) to find some real nerve in its heroine. In too many instances, Colette flatly refuses to go along with something Willy demands, only to do it in the next scene without explanation. When Willy needs to rush out a sequel to the first Claudine book, he actually locks her in a room and tells her he’ll let her out after four hours. Instead of climbing out the window and leaving the louse, she waits a beat, then looks at her notebooks lustily and begins to write.
The Claudine phenomenon prompts many interesting developments for the couple. When the book is adapted for a stage show, the magnetic actress who plays her becomes part of a “Claudine Trinity” with the authors; Willy descends more deeply into sexual fantasies, taking up with women who pretend to be the girl Colette created; and Colette finds someone she can truly love: a lesbian aristocrat who wears trousers in public and is a much finer man than Willy. (Denise Gough is quietly winning in the part.)
Paving the way for Colette’s inevitable divorce and the fame that will follow, the film shows how she grew interested in theater and dance. She causes a riot by kissing Missy onstage at the Moulin Rouge, then ekes out a living touring crummy show houses across the country. (She’d write a successful book about this period, called The Vagabond, and publish it under her own name.)
In a random encounter on tour, Colette learns that Willy has sold the rights to their Claudine series, and that’s the last straw. Finally, she stands up for herself in the way we’ve been waiting for. We don’t get the pleasure of seeing her take public ownership of her writing career, but hearing the last of Willy’s recurrent, desperate “forgive me” speeches is a consolation.
Production companies: Killer Films, Number 9 Films, Bold Films
Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson, Robert Pugh, Ray Panthaki, Shannon Tarbet
Director: Wash Westmoreland
Screenwriters: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley, Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon, Michael Litvak, Gary Michael Walters
Executive producers: Svetlana Metkina, Norman Merry, Mary Burke
Director of photography: Giles Nuttgens
Production designer: Michael Carlin
Costume designer: Andrea Flesch
Editor: Lucia Zucchetti
Composer: Thomas Ades
Casting director: Susie Figgis
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Sales: CAA, Endeavor
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