Wash Westmoreland’s biopic on the French literary icon takes its audience through Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s early years and sees her coming into her own both as a writer and as a woman. The film, though moving forward on a fairly conventional arc, is ultimately triumphant and entertaining, and offers spirited performances from its leads.
Names are important in Colette. During her early years in Paris, while still somewhat of an outsider among its literary and social circles and living in the shadow of her literary entrepreneur husband Henry ‘Willy’ Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), ‘Gaby’ (Keira Knightley) idly scratches his name on a windowpane. It is a popular name carrying considerable weight, a veritable stamp of quality which frequently graces reports and reviews written by other writers. Willy employs a host of ghost writers whose creations get freely credited to him. When he discovers his wife’s literary talents, she suffers a similar fate, especially because, as she is brazenly reminded, “Women writers don’t sell.”
And hence, for years she is deprived of the fame and recognition that is her due having poured herself into the ‘Claudine’ novels but deliberately obscured by Willy’s name, reputation and personality. What complicates the dynamic further is, as she admits, a feeling of being under obligation for he was the one who had originally exposed her to this new world of possibilities. Indeed, the film’s freshness lies in the way it refuses to villainise Willy, making him a strong, witty if at times overbearing presence, and generously acknowledging his experience in the business and skills as an editor both of which helped Colette’s early writing.
Even so, Colette is not one to be cowered or bullied as Knightley’s character makes amply clear. Hers is a spirit that will not be contained. Not acknowledged for her writing, she finds other avenues for her independent and creative tendencies taking to the stage while declaring confidently that she also loves to earn her own money. At the same time, she refuses to turn into Willy’s long-suffering wife in the face of his constant philandering, engaging instead in several relationships with women of her own. When she starts introducing and identifying herself with just her last name, the culmination of which is its solo appearance on her newest publication The Vagabond, it is an assertion in more ways than one – a final joyous reclaiming of all that had been kept from her.
However, the film’s central dramatic tension, despite its focus on Colette’s relationships and budding social confidence, arises as it should out of its writerly concerns. Colette finds her calling, something she will do successfully for the rest of her life in these early years that the film chronicles. Her growing unhappiness in fact and eventual break from Willy is all because she cannot claim her work as her own. And yet, for a film about a figure who found her voice and a way to assert herself through her writing, gaining a name and building an eventual legacy around it, Colette doesn’t invest as much on the practice itself.
“Writing’s a nightmare”, Colette announces at one point but the writing flows fairly easily once she is locked in a room and instructed to write. Even though Knightley makes up for it with her fierce and vivacious performance, the film doesn’t focus enough on the art, the struggles of making it or the development of the style and voice that Colette would become so well-known for.
Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star 2018 runs from 25 Oct-1 Nov. mumbaifilmfestival.com