‘Colette’: An origin story told right
Keira Knightley takes the iconic literary character from youth to adulthood with expressive physicality
Some nibble on life’s bounty; the French writer Colette gorged. Born in 1873, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette — whose more than 80 volumes include Gigi — had one of those lives that make biographers giddy. A passage in Judith Thurman’s Secrets of the Flesh suggests how much Colette crowded into her 81 gilded years: During one short eventful period, she attended a boxing match, reported on the Tour de France, rode in a dirigible and watched the police capture a gang of anarchist bank robbers only to be attacked by the frenzied onlookers.
The anarchists and blood-crazed mob are absent from the attractive biographical movie Colette, which takes a light, enjoyably fizzy approach to its subject. The world that Colette (a vibrant Keira Knightley) inhabits on-screen is brighter and smaller than in Thurman’s telling, with its luminaries (Proust! Bernhardt!), morphine addicts and sex cruising. The movie’s Colette is never as wild as you might hope for a literary titan and voluptuary who first writes herself into history with her Claudine novels while bedding men and women alike. But she’s consistently, gratifyingly, full-bodied company.
The director Wash Westmoreland opens the movie with some misdirection that plays with your expectations. The story begins in 1892, the year before Colette turned 20 and first wed. In a dark bedroom with an indolent cat, she wakes reluctantly in the house she shares with her parents (Fiona Shaw and Robert Pugh).
Everyone is speaking in English which, with the tranquillity, stippled sunlight and exuberant flora, paints a picture so pretty and familiar that you brace for tea and a yawningly polite meander down biopic lane.
Then the writer Willy (Dominic West) bounds in, filling the house and movie with air and energy. Leading with his smooth manners and a paunch that will swell into a potbelly stove, he goes through the proper courtship motions. Colette’s parents are understandably impressed, unaware that their daughter and Willy — who excels at false fronts — have already been secretly meeting. Later that day, she eagerly clambers on him, announcing that she’s in charge of her desires. (Knightley takes the character from dewy youth to adulthood with expressive physicality.) And, before long, the lovers are married and in Paris, where they float between high society and the demimonde.
Colette is an origin story, a tale of metamorphosis rather than of already formed greatness. What interests Westmoreland is how a self-described country girl became a woman of the world, a transformation that in its deeper, more intimately mysterious registers remains out of reach of this movie and of the hardworking Knightley. Mostly, he suggests, an intoxicatingly free world was waiting for Colette; all she had to do was discover it. Her entry comes through Willy (aka Henry Gauthier-Villars), a witty libertine with a Van Dyke beard and a voracious appetite for society, women and fame.
Willy could have been, maybe should have been monstrous, but he’s irresistible here, which perhaps speaks truthfully to his complicated relationship with Colette. A writer whose name was a brand, Willy published reams, using ghostwriters generously. In the movie, the flat in which he and Colette live is a bustling blur, a literary factory that Willy runs while barking orders — West’s amusing, emphatic delivery turns Willy’s every utterance into self-promotion — as employees come and go, delivering manuscripts and demanding (late) payment.
It’s against this backdrop that SidonieGabrielle Colette becomes just Colette, a transition that Willy hastens, including by lying about his serial infidelities. The untruths put a wedge between the couple that devastates Colette yet also liberates her. Willy also runs out of ghostwriters, so turns to the only person left in sight: his wife. Colette resists, he pushes her, she resists some more and he locks her up in a room. Voila! A new, natural writer is born.
Westmoreland doesn’t make more of the master-slave dynamic that feeds Colette’s twinned sexual and literary development, perhaps because he wanted to make a liberation story.
He has succeeded, at times movingly, even if Colette’s deliverance can seem shaped to 21st-century expectations and norms rather than to fin de siècle complexities and contradictions. The whole thing is too smooth, clean and aspirational. And of course he omits much — more books, more lovers, a neglected daughter and the teenage stepson whom Colette seduced — but with a life this exuberantly full, how could he not?