Colette was a pioneer in women’s rights, an author who was nominated for the Nobel prize in literature six years before her death in 1954. But director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) — working from a script he wrote with his late husband Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz — has rightly refused to fashion a stuffy biopic out of Colette’s life. This is the story of Colette’s empowerment, a theme that rings timely and true in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. This is the firebrand Colette that Knightley plays with every fiber of her being. She’s something to see.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born 145 years ago in France, when it was customary for an aspiring female author to hide her light under a bushel and do as men told her. Colette’s first rebellion was leaving her Burgundian village and, at 20, running off to Paris to marry the older author and critic Henry Gauthier-Villars. Known as Willy in literary circles, Colette’s husband was a dedicated libertine who enjoyed wedlock as long as it didn’t lock him out of screwing around. Superbly played by Dominic West, Willy charms and cajoles his wife into accepting an open marriage.
What’s harder for Colette to accept is letting Willy take credit for her writing. Willy employs a veritable factory of writers who allow their work to be published as Willy’s own. No exception for a wife. “No one reads female writers,” Willy informs Colette with piggish certitude. But when Colette’s first four novels — the Claudine stories — become scandalous bestsellers, Colette begins to seethe in a way that would make Glenn Close’s exploited enabler in The Wife green with envy.
Watching Colette bust out of the shell Willy has trapped her in gives the movie an exhilarating kick. It’s infuriating to watch Willy lock up his wife until she produces copy. It’s a delicious thrill when she beats the bastard at his own game by indulging her own erotic longings with men and women. It’s just like Willy to sleep with same American heiress Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) that his wife is getting it on with. Colette develops a more serious relationship with Mathilde de Morny, or Missy, a cross-dressing noblewoman played with style and strength by a stellar Denise Gough. It’s Colette who persuades Missy to go on stage with her at the Moulin Rouge for a kiss that caused riots in the streets.
Knightley crushes these scenes, reveling in portraying a woman living out the strength of her convictions. In 1904, Colette split from Willy, even though he owned the copyright to her books and squandered the earnings. When she finally earns the right to publish again, under her own name, the victory tastes as sweet now as it did then.
Westmoreland ends his film with Colette in her prime during the Belle Époque, making inroads that would be felt long after her passing. Left to history are her future successes, peaking with writing Gigi in 1944, along with her other alliances and marriages and her death at 81 which lead to her becoming the first French woman of letters to be granted a state funeral. From its gorgeous costumes by Andrea Flesch and shimmering camerawork by Giles Nuttgens to a score of surpassing beauty by British composer Thomas Adès, Colette is a movie that dazzles the senses. But the source of its power to reach the mind and heart is something more intimate: the indelible image of Colette fighting past an oppressive patriarchy and seizing the freedom to be heard as a woman. It’s ironic how the force of that image still stings with relevancy.