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Film review: 'Colette' starring Keira Knightley

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This extravagant period piece by director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice, Quinceañera) opened at the Sundance Film Festival and was given a gala premiere at the Toronto Film Festivals before its international release. It deals with the early career of celebrated early 20th century French writer Colette, her complicated personal life, and her struggles to escape the strictures of conventional gender roles and to gain both personal freedom and recognition as a writer.

Keira Knightley plays the living daylights out of Colette, presenting an intriguing portrait of a complex, passionate woman, full of inconsistencies but fascinating and admirable, whose determination sees her through the repression and exploitation that preceded her fame. Known to her family as Gabrielle, Colette grew up in a small village in Burgundy, having little contact with the wider world until she marries a former comrade of her father’s, Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a publisher and writer who worked under the pen name Willy. The first few years of their marriage are tumultuous, due to Villars’ infidelities and his tendency to overspend and fall into debt, but Gabrielle/Colette is relatively content. From managing her husband’s correspondence, she expands her role to editing and correcting his manuscripts. When Villars recognises her talent for writing, he recruits her to produce a novel, primarily as a way to increase the household income. Her first work, Claudine At School, based upon Colette’s own adolescence, is a huge and unexpected success, but Villars receives all the credit, as he has had his wife ghost-write the novel, which is published under his own name, as are several sequels.

The Claudine books are not only bestsellers, they create a sensation in French society with their frankness about young Claudine’s emotional life, her sexuality, and her desire for personal freedom. Claudine is not only avidly read, she changes French fashion; the character is imitated, portrayed in the arts, and even household items are named for Claudine. Colette continues to write, deeply engaged in the stories she tells and happy with the books’ success, but also frustrated at being forced to write anonymously, and by her husband’s overbearing use of her talent: at one point, he even locks her in a room to hurry her completion of the next Claudine novel. The film does not take the easy route of making Colette merely an oppressed victim and her husband solely a villain, but makes room for the ambiguities of an imperfect but largely affectionate marriage, given the social norms of the time. Villars is far from perfect, but Colette is not a helpless dupe. She uses her wits not only to avoid exploitation when possible, but to better her own situation when exploitation is inevitable. Colette is a fully developed character who is permitted some ambivalence: she genuinely loves writing, even while she resents doing so under her husband’s name; she appreciates the admiration her novels attract, while uncomfortable with Villars’ tendency to use her as a mascot, a sort of live Claudine doll for advertising purposes; and she disdains the pretentiousness of upper-class Parisian society even as she enjoys being able to manipulate its approval and impact its tastes.

Colette’s often chaotic marriage, and the compromises she and Villars manage to work out between them, are explored as well, and with great sensitivity and even-handedness. With the advice and support of her unworldly but insightful mother, (Fiona Shaw) Colette explores ways to make Villars’ philandering tolerable, and to demand the basics of respect and honesty from him; and later, when she comes to recognise her own attraction to women, the couple negotiate a sophisticated arrangement that allows their mutually open relationship to continue with few disruptions for the remaining years of their marriage. Only when Villars commits the ultimate betrayal of trying to sell the rights to Colette’s novels is their bond finally destroyed. It is at this point Colette makes a name for herself in other art forms. She becomes fascinated by the emerging art of mime, and following her divorce becomes well known in music halls, before going on to finally write and publish under her own name. The movie, which deals only with her early struggles, concludes on a hopeful note as Colette embarks on the independent writing career where she truly made her mark.

Colette is already a multiple awards nominee and considered a likely Oscar contender. The acting in this production is irreproachable. The production design (by Michael Carlin, who also designed other period films such as The Duchess and Suite Française) and the overall look, from the authentic costumes to the elaborate scenes of Parisian night life, are magnificent, and a large part of the film’s appeal. Belle Epoque Paris is a significant part of the story – the fascination with the arts, the extravagance, the development of the theatre, music, and literature; but also the early explorations of feminism and sexual emancipation, which were to some extent led and inspired by the Claudine books, and personified in Colette and her fictional characters. Most of all, the script works as an engaging study of a strong and talented woman finding her own path.