Re­venge of a writer wronged

Co­lette

The Guardian - G2 - - Reviews | Film - Peter ter Brad­shaw shaw

★★★★☆ Dir Wash West­more­land Length 112 mins Cert 15

Star­ring Keira Knight­ley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw

Co­lette, di­rected by Wash West­more­land, is A Star Is Born for the belle époque: an early-years biopic of French lit­er­ary phe­nom­e­non Co­lette that is in­vig­o­rat­ing, mer­ce­nary and sexy. It bus­ies it­self with sex and fame – and also some­thing rarely ac­knowl­edged in de­tail in cos­tume dra­mas about writ­ers: money. This is the story of how tal­ented young au­thor and coun­try mouse Si­donie-Gabrielle Co­lette (played with wand-like grace by Keira Knight­ley) sub­mits in 1893 to mar­riage and com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion by an older man from the big city, the me­diocre and flat­u­lent critic-slash-pub­lisher Henri Gau­thier-Vil­lars, pen-named “Willy”.

He brings out her wildly pop­u­lar Clau­dine nov­els (racy au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ad­ven­tures of girl­ish yearn­ing) un­der his own name, with­out giv­ing his wife a smidgen of the ac­claim rightly ow­ing to her, still less any loot. Willy is played with a smirk and a goa­tee by Dominic West, who also im­por­tantly en­dows him with bullish charm. Yet West makes him a grisly and de­creas­ingly en­gag­ing fig­ure, es­pe­cially when the phi­lan­der­ing Willy be­comes some­one who needs his mistresses to dress as school­girls (in the mod­ish “Clau­dine” garb) be­fore he can get an erection.

#CacheTonPorc? Co­lette (as she is to style her­self) gets a sweeter re­venge. She comes to re­ject her hus­band’s dis­hon­esty, em­brace her own writerly iden­tity and leave “Willy” in the dust­bin of his­tory. But this hap­pens af­ter she has learned some­thing from him about the ways of the world and the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of the lit­er­ary and sex­ual mar­ket­place. It is Willy who has punched up her orig­i­nal prim manuscripts with his own nar­ra­tive gusto and swarthy ro­mance. He en­cour­aged her, from pervily ob­ses­sive fas­ci­na­tion and en­tre­pre­neur­ial zeal, to have gay af­fairs that she could then write about with the names changed. She is no Prous­tian pris­oner, but the film sug­gests that he has in some sense au­thored her. Or per­haps it is that Co­lette al­lowed her­self to be au­thored as a tem­po­rary ca­reer move: a nec­es­sary ap­pren­tice­ship and vir­gin­ity loss.

Knight­ley brings some­thing brit­tle and skit­tish to the part of the young Co­lette, qual­i­ties that soften into sex­i­ness; she is a naïf who is or­dered by her mama (the de­pend­ably in­tel­li­gent and com­plex Fiona Shaw) to take a bas­ket on a coun­try walk so that she can col­lect black­ber­ries for the fam­ily’s tea. In fact, she is sneak­ing into a barn to have sex with her age­ing fiance. Once they are mar­ried, Co­lette finds her­self in Paris’s ex­cit­ing world of moder­nity: new-fan­gled bi­cy­cles and elec­tric light. More im­por­tantly, she is to dis­cover a pro­to­typ­i­cal world of cor­po­rate brand­ing in which in­di­vid­ual writ­ers can be messed with.

Pre­pos­ter­ous Willy fan­cies him­self the head of some­thing like a Hol­ly­wood stu­dio churn­ing out hot prop­er­ties: pulp best­sellers. He is fas­ci­nated by the new “talk­ing pictures” and won­ders if a “cine-play” could be made of Clau­dine’s ad­ven­tures. But the aw­ful truth is that he and all the other hope­less males he em­ploys have no talent. Co­lette is the only one who has. She has a gift which, in a re­ver­sal of gold­min­ing, needs to de-re­fined, good writ­ing that must be smudged and smeared with com­mer­cial pruri­ence be­fore it will sell. Willy sees this; Co­lette doesn’t.

Fi­nally, Co­lette is to fall for the beau­ti­ful and an­drog­y­nous Mathilde De Morny (Denise Gough) with whom she stages a stud­iedly out­ra­geous the­atre event, greeted by the stuffed shirts of Parisian so­ci­ety like the Mar­quess of Queens­berry wit­ness­ing the “som­domite” be­hav­iour of Os­car Wilde.

Knight­ley and West have a tremen­dous chem­istry: two very smart and worldly per­for­mances that sug­gest that Co­lette and Willy did en­joy some­thing like a real love af­fair, and that Co­lette was never sim­ply a vic­tim, nor Willy sim­ply an ex­ploiter. Per­haps, to ex­tend the Hol­ly­wood anal­ogy, he saw him­self as an old-style mogul run­ning an in­dus­try in its pre-au­teur state, when the as­sign­ment of author­ship was not a pri­or­ity. But keep­ing his wife’s earn­ings cer­tainly was.

This is a highly en­joy­able and brac­ing piece of work from Wash West­more­land, who with his late part­ner, Richard Glatzer, made the ex­cel­lent Still Alice, star­ring Ju­lianne Moore. He co-scripted this movie with Glatzer, who died of ALS or amy­otrophic lat­eral scle­ro­sis in 2015: the film is ded­i­cated to him. There is a cheeky flour­ish in their script here, when Willy de­clares that Clau­dine “as­tounds us with her moxie”. This film does much the same.

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