Director Wash Westmoreland’s latest film, based on a screenplay written jointly by himself, his late husband Richard Glatzer and British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, tells the timely story of the early 20th century female writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley).
Plucked from her comfortable but sheltered countryside existence by pompous Parisian writer Willy (Dominic West), Colette is at first overwhelmed by the sudden switch from rural predictability with her family to Willy’s boisterous bohemian lifestyle. Blessed with beauty, charm and intelligence, it doesn’t take Colette long to feel at home in Willy’s sophisticated artistic circles.
Realising she has creative instincts she didn’t know existed, under Willy’s watchful (read: overbearing) eye Colette starts writing coming of age stories with subtle sexual undertones. Though it quickly becomes clear that her talents surpass those of her husband, Colette’s books are nonetheless published in her husband’s name, ostensibly due to the constraints facing female authors in those times – though evidently her husband’s jealousy also plays a major role.
Though the roaring success these bring Willy are at first thrilling to both members of the couple, Colette grows increasingly resentful of the lack of recognition and eventually strikes out on her own, not only publishing in her own name but also embarking on a lesbian affair, experimenting with cross-dressing and joining a traveling dance troupe. She is aided in her self-liberation by the radical Marquise de Belbeuf (Denise Gough), who encourages her to challenge gender stereotypes and to truly live up to her values.
Colette is undoubtedly an enjoyable watch, anchored as it is by excellent performances from the two leads – Knightley is at once both coy and fiercely subversive, while West delivers some fantastically witty lines with real panache – and highly polished direction and cinematography from Wash and DP Giles Nuttgens respectively. Its conventional period polish is also one of its weaknesses however, as its affectations undermine the radical themes Colette is grappling with.
Conversely, Colette is further undone by its heavy-handed insistence on using every available opportunity to affirm its relevance to the #MeToo generation. While it is hard to imagine its themes of gender fluidity and female empowerment not resonating with contemporary audiences, Wash and his fellow screenwriters make these parallels irritatingly obvious, to the extent that characters constantly say and do things that feel implausibly millennial, and caricatures (especially male ones) abound. This exaggerated confidence in its own historical importance is encapsulated by the film’s tagline –“History is about to change” – as if until then, no woman had ever written a good book.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka