Colette cleverly takes a light approach to history and biography, ensuring its protagonist not only has a lot to say but is also worth listening to.
Colette is a good-looking film about good-looking people, but it’s a bit more than that. Based on the eventful life of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, played here, I suppose predictably, by Keira Knightley, Wash Westmoreland’s chronicle of the literary titan is full of energy and humor, but also a relatively potent commentary on gender politics and sexual freedoms.
It doesn’t start that way, though. Perhaps it’s the presence of Keira Knightley (much, much better served here than in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), or the fact that everyone speaks in English, or Fiona Shaw and Robert Pugh playing Colette’s parents, but the impression early on is of a much safer and more stifling biopic than this one ultimately ends up being.
But the sun-dappled idealism of those earliest sequences doesn’t last. Soon Colette is married to Willy (Dominic West), a well-known writer who is perennially on the fringes of true success because he splurges all his profits on the high-society lifestyle he so desperately covets. Willy, then, is a conman; he has insatiable appetites for women and gambling, and his house-of-cards literary empire teeters under the weight of unpaid ghostwriters and aggrieved flings. But it’s impossible not to like him on some level, thanks to a witty script (credited to Westmoreland, alongside Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz) and a performance from West that is charming and funny enough that you can’t help but understand what Colette sees in him.
And that’s the point. A male character being such a scene-stealing force of nature might seem misguided in a film that is ostensibly about women and the struggles thereof, but half the pleasure is seeing Colette’s evolution from meek(ish) country girl to a worldly woman who more than meets his charismatic challenge. But the transformation requires that Colette be, at least for a while, subservient to Willy; she writes her first novel, for instance, because he locks her in a room and forces her to.
But that is, again, the point. Willy’s lavish habits, serial infidelity and abuses are what liberate Colette not just from the trappings of marriage but also societal expectations and norms. As she starts to develop her own success independently of him she also starts to bed men and women, including Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), a woman who dressed as a man. The more Willy attempts to stifle her freedom the more exploratory her sexuality and art become; the more he lies and finagles to keep her, the more truth she scripts on the page. By the time she truly stands up to him her emancipation is complete, and her identity fully-formed. In that sense Colette is more akin to a superhero’s origin story than a biopic.
Perhaps Westmoreland doesn’t go quite far enough in depicting this process – in the middle portion, particularly, Colette’s personality can seem to waver, as though both extremes have collapsed in on each other – and in communicating the breadth of Colette’s talent beyond its “femininity”. But neither of these things seems to matter much to the broad arc of the film, which is a handsome and impressive tribute to a life lived so energetically that in some sense it continues even today.