Based on the true story of author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, Colette is a young woman from the countryside that falls in love with a Parisien 14-years her senior named Willy. Once they move to Paris, she agrees to ghostwrite a semi-autobiographical novel for her husband. Always willing to capitalize when he discovers talent, Willy convinces Colette to write semi-autobiographical novels, though they would have to be published under his name.As her ‘Claudine’ series takes off in popularity, her confidence in her abilities and sexuality grows as she fights against her societal constraints.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice), Colette is a lush period drama that has full confidence in the abilities of its stars. Keira Knightley continues to play to her strengths as a confident, progressive woman who lights up the screen with her balance of sincerity and ferocity. Not to be outdone, however, Dominic West more than holds his own in the film as Colette’s frustrated and sexually promiscuous husband, Willy. There is a genuine chemistry between them that keeps the film moving, as they walk the tightrope between love and hate. Even during the moments where the film meanders in tone, the scenes between them ground the story. Theirs is the love story that the audience must decide whether either toxic or true.
Set in 1893, Colette is a modern take on the period drama in many ways. Although she starts out as a quiet country girl, Colette’s journey takes her from the shadows to the spotlight. Beginning as Willy’s ghost-writer, Colette seems content to allow him to take the glory for her story… until their notoriety begins to take over the country. As her novel’s popularity grows, so too does Colette’s confidence in her ability to write and speak her voice. This adds an intriguing element to her relationship with Willy, not because of the state of their marriage but rather because of how challenged he is by her growth and burgeoning sexuality. Although Willy’s patriarchal mindset prevents him from fully embracing her increasing conviction, neither does he dismiss it.
More than this, Willy seeks to reconcile her perspectives with his own. An excellent example of this comes through their discussion of sexual promiscuity. While Willy remains open to Colette’s sexual encounters with women, he becomes angered at the thought of her being with other men. When she suggests that she would be open to his relationships with other men, he bristles at the thought. In doing so, however, Colette points out the inconsistency of his arguments and draws attention to his understanding of marital faithfulness. Conversations such as these happen in multiple spaces in the film, giving voice to not only Colette but so many women in the post-MeToo world. While Colette challenges the culture to be heard and respected as a woman, Willy continues to struggle. As a result, Willy is frequently portrayed as a man who seems lost in a world transitioning from patriarchal dominance to a more balanced approach to gender issues. It speaks to the challenges to a masculine culture that both wants to give voice to women but must understand that with these new—and more healthy—perspectives comes change.
Without question, Colette sparks strong conversation about gender identity and roles within our modern society. Solid performances keep the film moving, even in moments when the narrative feels slightly more padded than necessary.
Colette opens on Friday, September 21st, 2018