Movie Review: Colette

A biopic of the famed French writer has good intentions but lackluster delivery

Colete (Colette: Příběh vášně)
Directed by Wash Westmoreland
With Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough, Aiysha Hart

The life of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette gets the glossy costume-drama treatment in Colette. She lived a rather full life as an author and an actress. The film tries to cover all of it, ending being a mile wide but an inch deep.

One of the mains thrusts is that Colette (played by Keira Knightley) was used as a cash cow by her irresponsible husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a critic who published various works under the pen name Willy. Only Willy wrote very little of his alleged work; he considered himself a brand name and he hired out the writing to various clerks.

Desperate for money, he urges his wife to fill in by writing a novel. Once the novels were written by Colette but published under Willy’s pen name become popular, he is the toast of fin de siècle Paris, and Colette has to keep her talents silent.

The main character from her early novels, Claudine, become a phenomenon that changes hairstyles and launches all sorts of products such as soaps and perfumes.

Willy can be abusive as well as irresponsible. He physically locks Colette in a room to force her to churn out more literature.

Such a situation was not unique, many female artists published their works under the names of their husbands, as female writers and painters were not taken seriously.

But in modern France at least, Colette is now a household name while Willy is all but forgotten. The film Colette shows how the author came out of her husband’s shadow.

The film also delves into Colette’s sexuality, which was more focused on women than men. She eventually meets Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), a French noblewoman who wore men’s clothes. The two embark on theatrical efforts.

The film strives to find some balance, without overplaying the darker aspects of the story. Willy is not depicted entirely as a monster, in fact he is rather charming much of the time. Dominic West brings a winning charisma to the role, perhaps even more than the real character possessed, and a somewhat melancholy sense of desperation as he increasingly becomes a fraud reliant on someone else’s talent.

Keira Knightley shows a character who finds the strength to move on and expand her horizons when the situation she is in finally becomes intolerable.

From the supporting cast, Denise Gough makes an impression as the openly masculine noblewoman who is able to use her station to rise above public criticism. The groundbreaking relationship between Colette and Mathilde de Morny is actually more interesting than Colette’s relationship with Willy, but it gets substantially less screen time.

The film could also have spent more time with Colette’s life as an actress, as the few snippets of some of the shows she was in pique curiosity.

The direction by Wash Westmoreland is a bit pedestrian. The camerawork is rather uninspired, and many of the settings look like antique shops, jam-packed with too many things. The pacing doesn’t really build tension, despite some potential disasters for Colette. The film, in the end, feels like an edited miniseries, rather than a feature film.

When the early novels spark a mania, with every young French girl trying to look like the character Claudine, there was a chance to really build to a high point, but the rushed montage doesn’t take us there.

While Colette is well-known in France, she is not as popular in English-speaking countries, and the film is in English. More could have been done to show what Colette actually wrote, and why people went so crazy for it.

The fight over the authorship of the early books also was a potentially interesting plot line, but it is dealt with only by a title during the credits.

But its key point, that a person can rise up from setbacks and take control of their own destiny, and live their life as they chose comes through.

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