By Elizabeth Toohey.
If ever a movie was ripe for release, it’s the new bio-pic Colette. The life and career of one of France’s most celebrated novelists hits in rapid succession all the major notes of the MeToo movement, which shows no signs of slowing down, now with the recent Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh. The suppression of women’s voices in the public, and especially artistic, sphere; the derailment of their careers by powerful men who exploit, rather than mentor them; and the financial consequences for women – all of these themes, refracted through the setting of turn of the century Paris, define Colette. Add to this mix, a transgender love-interest, and frankly, if the story director Wash Westmoreland told were fictional, it would seem implausibly au courant. Tellingly, Westmoreland first wrote and pitched the film in 2001. It took sixteen years for anyone to get it.
Colette is a variation on the Pygmalion story, but refreshingly, one that ends with the rebellion and triumph of its Galatea. (By contrast, I was raised on a steady diet of films like Camille Claudel , in which Rodin’s mistress, an artist who was also exploited by him, is shipped off at the end to an insane asylum – and frankly, it’s a wonder that as a teenager, I wasn’t, as well.)
Kiera Knightley plays the bright, naïve, and slightly awkward Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a country girl wooed and wed by the celebrated “Willy,” as writer and critic Henri Gauthier-Villars was known. Fifteen years her senior, and more a marketing genius than an artistic one, Willy lives for salons and the theatre where he can schmooze with the fashionable avant-garde and develop himself as a charismatic public persona. His products are critical and literary texts ghostwritten by various underlings, such that his flat functions like a fin-de-siècle version of Warhol’s Factory. On the precipice of financial ruin, Willy enlists his young wife Colette in his cottage industry, a move that launches her storied writing career. Her debut novel, Claudine à l’école (1900), penned entirely by Colette and edited by Willie – who nonetheless accepted all the credit – took Paris by storm, making the two a fortune.
Westmoreland establishes the Pygmalion dynamic early in the film on the couple’s first outing, when Willy lays out a new dress for Colette – a sexy deep crimson affair with a plunging neckline, into which Colette can’t fit, no matter how she contorts herself with help from her maid. It’s a metaphor, of course – Willy sees her as a shiny new accoutrement, but Colette turns out to be not so malleable – yet however heavy-handed it sounds, the moment works, a credit to the nuance and naturalness Knightley and Dominic West bring to their roles. Willy barely registers his disappointment, reassuring his young wife, while helping her blot the toothpaste stain off the collar of the old dress she is wearing. Perhaps he’s not such a bad guy, after all, one might be forgiven for wondering. He did relinquish any hope of a dowry by marrying Colette, and the intimacy and the pleasure they take in each other initially seems very real.
The film revels in the visual sumptuousness of the period, juxtaposing the dusky palette of Paris with the verdant nature of the French countryside where Colette feels most at home and free. The entrapment she faces in her marriage to Willy, then, manifests visually in the claustrophobic interiors of carriages and the salons’ density of furniture and bodies, where Colette cannot escape her husband’s controlling eye. A bejeweled tortoise points to the decadence of that world and its disregard for innocence and nature. (Brideshead Revisited features a tortoise whose shell is likewise set with diamonds for much the same purpose, as an indictment of vulgarity.) Colette’s imprisonment – in silence and domesticity, in debt and the shadow of Willy’s ego – even spills over into the countryside of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye where Colette was raised by her (in my opinion) too-inspirational-to-be-true mother (Fiona Shaw) when Willy, after the overwhelming success of the first Claudine à l’école, buys her a country house and then proceeds to lock her in a room for hours when he deemed her literary output insufficient.
Willy is, in other words, soon exposed to be a typical rake of the times. He drinks. He gambles. He has affairs. He racks up debt and neglects to pay the literary underlings who have made his career. He controls Colette, jealous of any flirtations she has, all the while betraying her – doubly so, by lying about it, even when she all but sanctions an open marriage, so long as the two remain honest. It’s to Dominic West’s credit, then, that Willy doesn’t come off as a moustache-twirling villain, but far more plausibly and interesting, as intelligent and charming – perhaps even in love with Colette, at least as far as he’s capable of, given his massive ego and sense of entitlement.
As Willy enthusiastically describes a concept for one of his own pre-Colette stories to his ghostwriter, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette came to mind – in particular, her encapsulation of art history as resting on men painting women as “flesh vases for their dick flowers.” That’s clearly Willy’s way of painting women in his writing. Given these blinders, he initially has little appreciation for the story told in Colette’s autobiographical novel Claudine, though sees the strength of her writing stylistically and his financial desperation prompts him to send it to his publisher anyway.
In fact, in terms of composing the “Claudine” tetralogy, Colette finds her voice fairly early on; it’s taking credit for her writing and extricating herself from an exploitative relationship that consumes the decade plus the film spans. One might consider as a modern-day parallel the writer Linda Bloodworth Thomason’s exposé of how CBS executive Les Moonves strung her along for years on a contract promising he’d get around to producing one of her shows again one day, while obviously enjoying jerking her around. One hundred years post-Colette, despite writing for shows like MASH and creating the hit Designing Women, she took years to extricate herself from an emotionally manipulative professional relationship that had for years obstructed her writing from reaching the screen.
Colette’s character is a tribute to Knightley’s range, capturing her evolution intellectually, artistically, and sexually. Given her youth, Colette is a coming-of-age story in every sense, as much as a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Her journey includes not just a move from her socially sanctioned role to an artistically revolutionary one, but more interestingly (and to my mind, more relevantly to women today) from one with little confidence in her own voice, content to play a supporting role to a male celebrity, to an author in her own right, ready to claim the value of her story and step into the spotlight herself. In tandem, an affair with the socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson), sanctioned by Willy, reveals Colette’s maturing sense of sexuality, just as unconventional for the day. (Willy is such an insecure cad, he can’t even let her have that affair to herself, and pursues Georgie himself, inspiring the sequel Claudine en ménage.) Later, Colette will meet “Missy,” Mathilde de Morney, a Marquise who dressed as a man, in whom Colette found a faithful and fulfilling romantic partnership.
The strength of Colette, the film, is also its weakness, however – which is to say, it hits certain points with all the subtlety of a hammer, whether it’s Colette asking her mother, “Did you ever feel like you were playing a part as a wife?” or Missy telling Colette, “All those young girls, you’ve given them a voice – you should own up to it.” When Willy refers to Claudine as a “brand,” too, it felt like an anachronism – I mean, the word existed in fin-de-siècle France, of course, but was it really bandied about then the way it is today?
That said, these few moments of heavy-handedness are easy enough to let fly by in an otherwise compelling film. In fact, I’ll happily take them, if it means the world will have more stories like this, which center women who are groundbreakers, innovators, sexual initiators, makers of their own fortune and history.
Elizabeth Toohey is a book critic for the Christian Science Monitor. Her essays have appeared in Film International and Terror in Global Narrative: Representations of 9/11 in the Age of Late-Late Capitalism (Palgrave, 2016). She is an Assistant Professor of English at Queensborough Community College, CUNY.