Her novels were a cultural sensation that sold out printing after printing, spurred sprawling merchandise and plays, and inspired a generation of young women to boldness. But Colette (formerly known as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) was long regarded the muse of the Claudine novels, while her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars was celebrated as their author. His nom-de-plume “Willy” graced the books’ covers and his bawdy brand was used to launch the novels he’d mentored her to ghostwrite. But it was her observations and insights into the sensational and sometimes salacious experience of being a young woman that made them a phenomenon. It would take years and great personal pain for Colette to get the credit she deserved. The rebellious and passionate biopic Colette celebrates the woman and the artist who poured her self onto the page, sharing her fire and brilliance with the ages.
Beginning in 1892 France, Colette follows its heroine (Keira Knightley) from her girlhood romance with the renowned writer and libertine Willy, through their marriage, which was laced with creative collaboration, passionate fights, and infidelities. 14 years her senior, Willy (a fantastically bearded and big-bellied Dominic West) was her guide to the sophisticated–and arguably pretentious–salons of Paris, and he relished his role as her lover/”headmaster.” He encouraged her to work for him as one of his ghostwriters. But as Colette’s talent blossomed alongside a desire for some independence, their relationship became increasingly combative. Willy would lock her in a room, demanding she pen new pages. They’d have battling affairs, once with the same redheaded American heiress. And ultimately, as Colette stepped ever farther out of his shadow, their mercurial marriage would come to a bitter end. But her story goes on, well past even that told in Colette.
Rather than an encompassing biopic offering a thorough education on this fascinating French novelist, Colette aims to explore her journey of self-discovery, through her reckless youth, blossoming queer identity, and creative explorations in mime and outside of Willy’s domain. And Knightley makes a feast of it all, her every line alive with wit. Her sharp smirk swiftly cuts through the elitist posturing of Willy’s posh peers. Her dark eyes focus keenly to challenge and charm with equal ease and pleasure. Her Colette is at once the beguiling with sense of sensual mischief and the smartest one in the room. And for years, Willy is her seemingly perfect partner in crime. From his first frame, West paints Willy as showman who is boisterous, pompous, and undeniably charming. With a waggle of his eyebrows and a conspiratorially told anecdote, he seduces all who hear him. And it’s easy to see why Colette was wooed by him, and continued to pine for him, even in the face of abuse and betrayals.
But more than the death of a marriage, this is the film about the tragic death of a creative collaboration. Even when they were at loggerheads, Colette and Willy loved each other as people and respected each other as artists. The film relishes the wonderful work such a marriage of the minds made. Which may be because it was born from one.
This poignant biopic was penned by husbands Richard Glazer and Wash Westmoreland, who co-wrote and co-directed the breathtaking and Oscar-winning Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice. Sadly, Glazer died shortly after the film’s theatrical release. Colette was completed posthumously, with Westmoreland shouldering directorial duties alone. Westmoreland has made a beautiful film that is not only a radiant tribute to its subject, but also to his late husband. In Colette, Westmoreland explores the complexities of a marriage built on love, creativity, and collaboration. Rich with emotional stakes, pointed remarks, and words left unspoken, the script reveals an intimate knowledge of the tender battles of marriage. While the lush costume designs and vivid colors bring passion to the visuals as alluring as the leads’ vivacious performances.
Though its stroll through the life, loves and liveliness of its subject can sometimes be meandering, Westmoreland leads us down a path that’s in turns winsome, provocative, and heartbreaking.
Colette opens in limited release on September 21.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com