Starring the ravishingly vibrant Keira Knightley in the title role, Colette is a fairly pedestrian paint-by numbers biopic - which is a little disappointing, given that its cross-dressing and pansexual protagonist lead anything but a dull life. Director Wash Westmoreland’s depiction of La Belle Époque raises the inevitable question - in a life lived to the fullest extent imaginable, how did she ever find the time to write anything at all? While some prefer simply to nibble on life’s hors d'oeuvres, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette devoured it like a gastronome gorging on a six-course paroxysm of fine-dining for over eighty years. She also managed to churn out almost as many volumes of purple prose, including her notorious series of Claudine novels and her most famous works, Bel Ami and Gigi. Not a bad track record in a country where intellectual fashions change about as quickly as the plat du jour. During one brief but highly eventful period, Colette not only attended a prize fight, reported on the Tour de France, and flew in a dirigible, but also witnessed the police apprehend a clueless bunch of anarchist bank robbers and blow-up their hideaway, after which she was promptly mobbed by the surrounding crowd. Although her celebrity universe was inhabited by such stellar luminaries as Marcel Proust and Sarah Bernhardt, as well as a plethora of rampant sex cruisers and deranged morphine addicts, Westmoreland's depiction of the best-seller who wrote herself into history while bedding men and women alike is never quite as uninhibited or depraved as we might hope.
Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz's screenplay kicks off in 1892, the year before Colette turned twenty and got married, with some calculated misdirection. As Manohla Dargis has astutely observed, Colette (who died in 1954) was adored as much for the “feline opulence of her prose” as for the “unclipped sharpness of her social claws," so it is only fitting that the film should begin with an indolent pussy lying on a bed, à la Manet's Olympia. Our heroine wakes reluctantly up into a domestic scene so apparently idyllic that we are immediately braced for a polite meander down Madame Bovary lane. But then the handsome and shameless Henry Gauthier-Villars bounds in, filling both the house and movie with a ballon of hot air and overabundant energy. With his smooth manners and consummate self-assurance, the aptly nicknamed 'Willy' goes through the socially correct motions of courtship. Colette’s parents are understandably impressed, totally unaware that their nubile daughter has already enjoyed a number of dangerous liaisons with the bounder, who excels at presenting false fronts. Later that day, she eagerly clambers on top of him in a barn, gamely announcing that she is the one in charge of her own desires. Knightley takes the character neatly from dewy youth to young adulthood as the lovers marry and move to Paris, where they enjoy oscilating between the echelons of high society and the more bohemian literary and artistic demimonde, but the image of a jewel encrusted tortoise imprisoned on a plate in a louche Parisian salon suggests the luxurious captivity that awaits her. “Eiffel Tower - for or against?” one character inquires of the inexorable march toward modernity, while a society hostess boasts to her guests about her new electric light, demonstrating its magical ability to go on and off at the mere flick of a button. Illumination, anyone?
Colette can be seen both as a bewitching parable about enslavement, revenge, and social metamorphosis, rather than that of an already formed or preconceived artistic genius. Westmoreland seems fascinated by how a self-described “country girl” can be transformed as effortlessly as a light switch into a sophisticated woman of the world, a mutation that proves to be just beyond his reach, as well as that of the feline Knightley's. He suggests that an intoxicatingly free existence was already waiting for Colette and all she had to do was discover it. Her entry to that world comes through the bounder Willy, a charming lothario who sports Van Dyck facial hair and whose appetite for the boudoir is as capacious as his ever-expanding paunch. Willy's voracious hunger for wealth, fame, and acceptance by high society could easily have appeared monstrous, but instead proves irresistible when embodied by Dominic West, whose overstated delivery turns his every utterance into a fragile facade of deceit and self-promotion. An imperious “literary entrepreneur” whose name was already a brand, he employs a team of ghostwriters, whilst micturating and eructating unashamedly in front of his wife. The apartment they share together becomes a literary factory bossed over by the overweening Willy who barks out orders at various hapless employees as they ceaselessly come and go, whether delivering manuscripts or demanding payment.
Against this bustling backdrop, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette magically metamorphosises into just Colette, a transition that Willy hastens by lying about his serial infidelities. The constant lies and deception soon insert a wedge between the couple that devastates the provincial Colette, yet paradoxically also liberates her. Willy eventually exhausts his formerly boundless supply of ghostwriters, his expensive habits drain their resources, and he turns to the only person left within easy reach. Colette initially resists, he pushes her around a bit, she resists some more, then he locks her up in a room. “Write!” he thunders, echoing the imperative voice of every editor who’s ever lived - et voilà, a natural novelist is born. Although she speaks in English, somewhat distractingly she scratches out her lavender-scented visions of beauty and truth onto the pages of her schoolgirl cahiers in French, which Willy disingenuously passes off to his publisher as his own creation. A notorious contemporary photograph showed Colette on a mobile peacock throne, borne aloft by four near-naked men, so it is hardly a stretch when a similar tableau is inserted into Westmoreland's movie. Ooh La La, indeed ...
The movie derives its narrative energy from the intensity of their marital relationship in all its stormy complexity - her love, labour, betrayal, and eventually emancipation. One of the paradoxes of Colette’s literary life is that it began in forced captivity, so that she effectively becomes Willy’s slave, even as she begins loosening the conjugal bonds one affair at a time, most importantly with Missy, a freethinking Russian aristocrat who liked to dress as a man and with whom she spent the rest of her life. Westmoreland does not overstate the master-slave dynamic that feeds Colette’s twinned sexual and literary development, perhaps because he wants to fashion a feminist liberation story. Her deliverance seems shaped more by contemporary political expectations than fin de siècle sexual complexities and social contradictions. Like the recent version of Mary, Queen of Scots, the result is a bit too slick and aspirational, perhaps because so much biographical material is necessarily omitted - more books, more lovers, a neglected daughter, and a teenage stepson whom Colette seduced. Knightley and West bound exuberantly through their respective hoops, not least the farcical Feydeau-inspired ménage à trois of a flame-haired Louisiana heiress, who sleeps with both of them - unbeknownst to her, though of course the more worldly Willy knows everything. And much in the manner Mary, Queen of Scots, the legend of Colette provides one of those rare real-life stories that ascend to the mythical ranks of pure melodrama without much assistance.