Colette (2018)

HER OWN STYLE: KEIRA KNIGHTLEY AS COLETTE AGES BEAUTIFULLY THROUGHOUT THE TALE

There was a lot of talk at the post-movie discussion about how this film biography of the early adult life of the French writer Colette would have been handled by one of her current citizens.

Fair point. Colette the person is revered in France and how much more worth would they have placed on her compared to the US writing team of Wash Westmoreland (also directed), his life partner Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz?

Colette (2018) is beautifully shot and the interiors, many candlelit, are superb in their presentation of La Belle Epoque Paris – though most were shot in Budapest.

I enjoyed the handling of the story but it was only about the emergence of Colette as a young woman not about her life in toto. We could have been there for many more hours if the producers had wanted to give us that.

For example, the nine-time Oscar winner Gigi (1958) was adapted by Allan Jay Lerner from a novella by Colette. Thanks Heavens For Little Girls indeed which is a neat segue into Keira Knightley’s performance in the title role of Colette (2018). 

Knightley, who is 33, looks 17 in the early stages of the film then ‘ages’ into the adult Colette. It is seamless. She rarely has looked so gorgeous which is like saying Toblerone has never tasted so good.

Colette is a country-raised lass smitten with Henri Gauthier-Villars, stage name Willy (Dominic West), a Parisian rake about twice her age. They marry and she joins him in his Paris life of self promotion, literary struggle and keeping in touch with Willy’s station in life. 

Willy is a complete charlatan. With writers’ block or even no writing talent of his own he pays (and sometimes does not) ghost writers to produce text, often of a plot he has dashed off in a moment of verbal excess. His name appears as the author.

When the bailiff comes once too often he convinces his young wife to write of her experiences. Colette produces Claudine at School. This becomes a sensation, introducing young women especially to a heroine to which they can relate. Willy is listed as the author.

Historically, Colette is regarded as the first writer to write a teenage character. Three more Claudine books follow and their success spawns products for this whole new young women’s sales market. This produces one of the weaker lines in the film when Willy declares the character Claudine a ‘brand’, a notion I would have thought well ahead of its time?

Though Willy basks in the glory of authorship and the success of the books, it is later revealed that his wife is the writer and, as their marriage falters beneath his imprudent behaviour and investments, Colette’s love for her husband wanes.

The two share, separately, the same female lover; Colette finds her true love with other women, most notably Missy (Denise Gough) and Willy seeks his jollies with Claudine impersonators.

Breaking from Willy after he sells the rights to the Claudine books to their publisher, Colette embarks on a stage career that must have even shocked Parisians of the early 20th century.

A RIGHT WILLY: DOMINIC WEST AS COLETTE’S HUSBAND, A BUFFOON MASQUERADING AS LITERARY GLITTERATI

She has already created a fashion style. Young Parisian women copy Claudine’s dress and the short hairstyle adopted by Colette. Her relationship with the wealthy Missy, independent and boldly dressing like a man, gives Colette the confidence to strike out further for her own independence and preparedness to further challenge social norms.

Westmoreland and Glatzer, never to be forgiven by this reviewer for Still Alice (2014), are intent on making this film about women being held back by the male-domination of the times and of homosexual union. Bravo to that. Certainly Willy’s character is shown for what he probably was, a complete buffoon masquerading as literary glitterati.

However there is a lot more to Colette’s story than they portray. Just as an example, the end credits declare Colette and Missy stayed together after the film’s events. No mention is made of Colette giving birth to two children, the second at age 37, so one would assume there was a man about the place at some point.

Westmoreland and Glatzer appear to have used Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette (first published 1999) to get much of their information. 

Score: 3.5

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