Colette (United Kingdom/United States, 2018)October 07, 2018
Colette, a U.S./U.K. collaborative bio-pic from director Wash Westmoreland (The Fluffer), presents a chronology of the celebrated French author during her Belle Epoque formative years. Transpiring across a span of nearly 20 years, the movie falls into a category I sometimes refer to as an “Encyclopedia biography,” meaning that it gives an adequate overview without delving deeply into any one period. For those with little or no knowledge of who Colette was or why she was important/famous, this movie provides an introduction to her and a superficial understanding of some of the driving forces in her life and writing. As beautiful as it looks (credit for this is due to Westmoreland and his cinematographer, Giles Nuttgens), it doesn’t offer a story of any surprising depth or emotional strength. It’s straightforward which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but the limitations of this telling of Colette’s life is defined by a familiar quality.
The best thing about Colette is Kiera Knightley, whose performance in the title role may be the juiciest she has had in nearly a decade. (She always seems to be at her best in period pieces.) Knightley shines in the part, becoming Colette and believably illustrating how the young wife of a celebrated author could herself become the toast of Paris, defying nearly every conceivable social convention along the way (including a memorable “wardrobe malfunction”). Knightley’s passion is matched by that of Dominic West, with whom she shares solid chemistry. West avoids making Willy a complete ass by allowing the character’s humanity to peek through occasionally while embracing his arrogance and sense of entitlement. There’s something charismatic about the man, even as suffocating and self-obsessed as he often is.
Colette begins in 1893 with the 20-year old title character dallying with and eventually marrying the famous author Henry “Willy” Gauthier-Villars. He is 13 years her senior but it doesn’t matter to Colette – she’s in love. Having grown up in the bucolic village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, she finds life in Paris unpleasant. Willy, who spends all his money on women and gambling, is deep in debt and in desperate need to churn out more product than his current “factory” can produce under his pen name. He encourages Colette to write and her first novel, Claudine at School, is a stunning success. Three more Claudine novels come out as written by “Willy.” By the time the fourth one is published, Colette has become disillusioned with her thankless role as Willy’s silent contributor. She and her husband both have an affair with American socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson, Poldark’s Demelza). This results in Colette pursuing a long-term lesbian relationship with the androgynous Mathilde “Missy” de Morny (Denise Gough) while advancing her personality as an author and a performer.
One disadvantage of covering so many years in a single two-hour movie is that there’s no time to develop any aspect of Colette’s life to a satisfying degree. We are given glimpses of the passion that drives her to write but those moments don’t last. The quasi-comedic affair that she and Willy share with Georgie (Colette doesn’t know that her husband is also sleeping with her mistress) breezes by quickly. Once the movie begins chronicling Colette’s period as an actress, the narrative loses momentum. These sequences aren’t that interesting, her relationship with Missy is poorly realized, and the movie at times seems to be spinning its wheels.
It’s not difficult to understand Colette’s appeal – the lead character was a radical feminist in an era when women’s contributions were typically overlooked or dismissed. (There’s also an interesting synergy with Glenn Close’s The Wife, although spoiler concerns prevent me from discussing that in detail.) As the story of how France’s most famous female author found her voice, Colette offers an engaging, inspirational tale with Kiera Knightley’s performance lending her particular brand of vivacity to the lead character. This isn’t Oscar-worthy material but it’s the kind of solid art house motion picture that was popular during the 1990s and whose occasional reappearance in the 2010s is always welcome.
Colette (United Kingdom/United States, 2018)
Cast: Kiera Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aiysha Hart, Denise Gough, Robert Pugh
Home Release Date: 2018-12-11
Screenplay: Richard Glatzer & Wash Westmoreland & Rebecca D. Lenkiewicz
Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens
Music: Thomas Ades
U.S. Distributor: Bleeker Street Releasing