COLETTE. Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough. Also, Caroline Boulton, and Aisha Hart. Directed by Wash Westmoreland. Rated M (Sex scenes and nudity). 112 min.

This British film is a biographical drama based loosely on the life of the renowned French novelist, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who lived in France from 1873-1954. Colette married a Parisian, who initiated her into the bohemian life-style of Paris which stimulated and triggered the nature of her writing. She was nominated for the Nobel prize in literature in 1948.

Her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as Willy (Dominic West), was a popular writer himself, and married Colette at the age of 20. Willy recognised Colette’s writing talent and convinced her to write novels which he then released under his name. He managed a factory of ghostwriters, and Colette became absorbed within it, until fame discovered her.

Four novels titled “Claudine”, and written by Colette, cemented Colette’s husband as a much sought-after novelist, and established Willy as a celebrity for the honesty expressed in the work. The character of Claudine was a witty and free spirited country girl who became a cultural sensation. Colette’s frustration as a cloistered writer grew to boiling point, and she desperately wanted to make her talents known. As her books increased in popularity, the conflict between Colette and her husband grew. She knew her husband was unfaithful, and she proposed an open marriage, which he rejected, and they both dated other women. 

In her dalliances, Colette formed a connection with “Missy”, the Marquis de Belboeuf (Denise Gough), who encouraged her to free herself from the constraints that were being placed upon her. Willy opposed the Marquis’ influence on his wife and fought to maintain his control of Colette, regardless of the emotional consequences. Colette resisted his pressures, and her writing came to revolutionise French literature, fashion, and sexual expression.

Colette’s writing scandalised and stimulated Parisian life, and her novels expressed her restless spirit. Colette had affairs with an American heiress (Eleanor Tomlinson), as well as with the Marquis de Belboeuf who was a member of the French nobility, as the niece of Napoleon III. Colette lived her life in Paris in a decidedly masculine way, often dressed as a man. Significantly for Colette, when she was having an affair with the American heiress, Willy was having an affair with her as well.

This is a movie that is well scripted and acted, and there is excellent chemistry between Knightley and West in the film’s key roles. The film is a period costume drama that carries strong messages about female emancipation. Many of its scenes are photographed effectively in tableaux style that reflects the tone and spirit of French life that existed at the time. As the film progresses, however, the messages become mixed. It becomes unclear whether what is unfolding is a contemporary look at modern attitudes to gender, or the viewer is being exposed to the conflict of a free spirit, reigned in by sexual repression. Both issues are developed in the context of male supremacy doing battle with female desirability, but too often, the gorgeousness of the film’s visuals overwhelms the movie’s dramatic authenticity.

There are soap opera elements to the story of Colette that Westmoreland, the film’s Director, tries to resist, and can’t. Knightley’s performance as Colette helps to soften the possible tawdry impact of the film, by making the film visually entertaining, but the film is a sumptuous, well-clothed treat, that hides the seediness of its plotline. Its high style pulls the film away from serious historical accuracy. The result is is middle-of-the-line film that is entertaining and enjoyable, good to look at, and has been made to titillate rather than thrill.

The film is a gorgeously photographed period movie. It talks meaningfully about the onslaughts to feminism, but fears to probe too deeply into the issues.

Peter W Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Transmission Films

Released December 20th., 2018

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