Kiera Knightley shines in empowering biopic of French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

Savina Petkova on Wash Westmoreland’s ‘Colette‘ (2018)

Colette is a film that casts light upon shadows, a biopic that characterises our time of unravelling female contribution to the notion of Modern art. The underlying message is a skilful revisiting of history to correct the punctuation mistakes, not history per se. One should not conclude that written history is, or has been, wrong; we agree that it needs some retouching, rectifying, and inclusion. After the Oscar success of Still Alice (2014), director Wash Westmoreland could finally tackle this biopic project, written in 2001 under the name “Colette and Willy”. To much delight, his latest feature is a riveting time capsule, concise and cohesive in its representation of turn of the century France, and Keira Knightley delivers a ravishing lead performance that only makes us wonder how much fiercer and grander the actual Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954) must have been.

What weaves the delicate lace of human relationships is the gentle material of devotion, shaped by the sharp instrument of ego. In Colette, egos burst through the walls of Parisian flats and provincial houses, to dance a dangerous dance called love. In the beginning, Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is portraying a charming, quiet girl that enjoys a small-town life amidst beautiful forests and the endless nature spectacle of Burgundy, France. Her once wealthy, now destitute family welcomes the idea of her marrying a family friend – writer Henry Gauthier-Villars (outstandingly fragile Dominic West), and she lovingly carves his (suitable) nickname “WILLY” on the bedroom window to mark their union. Soon Colette’s gift for words becomes exploited and monetised by her opportunistic husband, who, even after the enormous success of the novels she writes for him, refuses to give them her original authors name.

A marriage for love soon turns sour by Willy’s infidelity and financial instability (both of which a result for his devotion to prostitutes). Yet, the bitter taste for Gabrielle is that of social inadequacy in a Parisian salon with its lusciously garmented rooms, high ceilings, draperies, heavy curtains and candle-lit conversations. The grandiloquence cannot seduce the young woman to believe in the virtue or intellect of the rich and famous. As she makes a subtle remark of being “bored” by Willy’s milieu, he accuses her of being ill-tempered and impatient. It takes getting used to, he says. The same mantra respectively applies to his own quality as a husband of excuses, aggression, and no punctuality. As a supplement for his own missing talent, Willy lives his life as a performance of greatness and his character is built as a shallow bohemian, masculine to his bones, especially as his tongue does not hesitate to repeat the ultimate verification for all his misdoings: “I am a man and this is what men do”. Painting the male figure as despotic, exploitative, and demanding may seem a good strategy to promote the feminist discourse around Colette’s persona, yet the film does not choose this easy way out.

In fact, Colette’s real history does not require a weakened male to animate her character, neither does Knightly’s snappy self-aware (thus, captivating) performance. The film plays out the “toxic relationship” trope in its reciprocity. Firstly, Colette’s relationship with Willy fosters a co-dependency based on growing up together (“You were nothing before I took you”), his tyrannical ways of keeping her hostage within a carefully garnished country house of her taste, his forcefulness on her writing, criticising her “feminine” style (too many adjectives). At the same time, Colette is the one to console him on his sexual dysfunction with his new mistress – a touching sequence that represents the grainy texture of human codependency. Rather than presenting their heterosexual relationship as normative, or as an entirely abnormal one, Colette threads lightly on these personal grounds, blending historical facts and flesh and bone empathy.

Some relationships can be sustained only if one is weak, others – only when one is stronger. On the one hand, Willy demands of Colette to be weaker, softened by pity, or social inferiority. On the other, Marquise de Belbeuf — Missy (Denise Gough) who perspicuously guides the protagonist through her own androgynous path, is the one that dares Colette to own her authorship rights. The relationship between the two women is portrayed as paradigmatic: affection, support, and mutually granted independence. Colette’s affirmation of queer love does not rest on the premise of a failed heterosexual one and the film deserves praise for the sensitive approach in representing both heterosexual and lesbian relationships, not as an “either-or” but as two different relationships.

If we are in need of a trope to symbolise the dynamics of Colette’s lifeworld, the most suitable contenders would be the character’s attire and physical appearance. When her first social debut straps her in a dark red corset dress, Colette refuses its despotic grip, choosing to wear a loose beige cotton dress, winning the scornful comments of the Parisian creme-de la creme. Her hair, previously worn in two braids (perhaps celebrating naïveté and virginity?), is now subjected to loose styling that expresses attentiveness and freedom. Later, her chin-short haircut, originally Willy’s salacious marketing whim, becomes a vital part of Colette’s persona — a shedding of previous skin. Following the example of Missy, she starts wearing three-piece suits, ties, and formal trousers to shock the public. When character and actress blend to transcend the ultra-feminine-costume-drama-sweetheart (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina, The Duchess), here, Knightley recalls her corset-busting portrayal of Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. In a way, Colette’ s ascent to her own true self is simultaneously a process of eliminating the excess. What stands behind grandiose terms such as “reinventing” or “perfecting”, is something simpler: self-assertion.

Showing in cinemas 11 January 2019

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.