T he story of the French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, usually known only by her surname, is beautifully told in Wash Westmoreland’s Colette, which conveys a strong feminist message within a conventionally-structured biopic. When we first meet Colette (Keira Knightley), she’s 20 years old and about to leave her home in rural Burgundy with her much older husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, better known as Willy (Dominic West), and go with him to their new home in Paris. She’s young, beautiful, and full of life, while he’s a sophisticated man about town and a power player in Parisian cultural circles. Despite her initial distaste for the pretentiousness and artificiality of the high society in which she now moves, Colette conquers it thanks to her natural beauty and intelligence.
Things go well at first on the home front as well, thanks in part to the white-hot attraction between Colette and Willy, which is well conveyed by Knightly and West. But Colette is too smart to continue taking things at face value, and soon discovers that the real Willy is quite different from the one that swept her off her feet. For one thing, they’re always short of money (to the point of having furniture repossessed), and the reason is not so much lack of income as it is his choice to spend it on gambling and whores (it’s a wonder half the population didn’t die of syphilis in those pre-penicillin days). For another, the many works published under his name are in fact written by a stable of ghost writers: in fact his total lack of ability as a writer is cuttingly portrayed in a scene where Willy sits down at the typewriter with great plans, only to come up with even less results than Jack Torrance produced in The Shining. This combination of circumstances leads to perhaps the one right thing Willy ever did in his life: he suggests that Colette begin writing. His motivation is primarily financial, because, unlike the men who ghost for him, she is in no position to demand payment. His ego is also in play: of course he publishes her work under his name, taking both the credit and the income that is rightfully hers. Nonetheless, Willy did set in motion the process that led to Colette becoming an world-famous author.
While Colette is firmly placed in turn-of-the-century France (with Budapest ably standing in for Belle Epoque Paris), the basic story line is still relevant today. Willy is a familiar type—a man whose talents are primarily that of playing the big shot and of taking credit for other people’s work successes—in fact, he’s pretty much a real-life version of Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter novels. Colette is also a familiar type: a woman with outsized talents but no sense of her abilities, nor any way to crack the power structure and put her abilities to use.
As befits its heroine, Colette is a sensual delight, with cinematography by Giles Nuttgens, music by Thomas Adès, production design by Michael Carlin, and costume design by Andrea Flesch. Besides the strong central performances, the film features a number of vivid depictions of secondary character, including Fiona Shaw as Colette’s mother Sido, Denise Gough as Mathilde de Morny (a.k.a. “Missy”), and Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie Raoul-Duval.
What I like best about Colette’s real-life story is that, as the historical record shows, she had the last laugh. And the most wonderful thing about Colette is that it portrays Colette’s coming into her own as a somewhat stumbling process rather than a foregone conclusion, with that process facilitated (as it always is in a hero’s journey) by the help of true friends as well as some unexpected allies. The upshot is that Collette is not just the story of one woman’s coming into her own, but also a blueprint for how to do so when just about all the social, cultural, and legal forces in your world are stacked against you. | Sarah Boslaugh