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‘Co­lette’: An ori­gin story told right

Keira Knight­ley takes the iconic lit­er­ary char­ac­ter from youth to adult­hood with ex­pres­sive phys­i­cal­ity

- By Entertainment · Arts · Bicycle Racing · Bicycles · Outdoor Hobbies · Hobbies · France · Keira Knightley · Marcel Proust · Sarah Bernhardt · Dominic West · Paris · Anthony van Dyck · Tour De France · Colette · Colette · Wash Westmoreland · Fiona Shaw · Robert Pugh

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?

 ?? Pho­tos cour­tesy of Bleecker Street ?? Keira Knight­ley in ‘Co­lette’.
Pho­tos cour­tesy of Bleecker Street Keira Knight­ley in ‘Co­lette’.
 ??  ?? Knight­ley, Do­minic West and Aiysha Hart.
Knight­ley, Do­minic West and Aiysha Hart.

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