A sensation during the Belle Époque in turn-of-the-century France, the literary, artistic and feminist icon Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was born to be played by Keira Knightley, who’s in her willowy, defiant element in this decorously titillating account.
It concentrates on the years of Colette’s marriage to the older Henry Gauthier-Villars, a publisher-about town fleshed out by a harrumphingly priapic Dominic West. He published his talented wife’s saucy stories of the fictional libertine Claudine under the nom de plume “Willy” (stop sniggering at the back), for reasons of patriarchal orthodoxy that the public wouldn’t buy books written by women. Literarily repressed, Colette refused to take her second-class status lying down, and Knightley comes into her own.
Colette’s stories have been intermittently adapted for the screen, most notably her then-racy Claudine novels in the silent era, and more sensationally the Leslie Caron musical Gigi in 1958. The writer herself was portrayed by French actress Mathilda May in the German/French/UK co-production Becoming Colette in 1991, directed by Danny Huston and considered something of a Euro-pudding. It was written in English and spoken in pidgin English, and didn’t stint on the soft-focus sapphism.
Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) wrote this far more thoughtful and politically relevant version of the same period in Colette’s vibrant life with his late husband Richard Glatzer, an avowed Francophile who died in 2015, and British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who scripted Ida and Disobedience.
For all its virtue-signalling in the direction of modern sexual politics, it looks and feels every inch like a period drama from the school of Merchant Ivory. Impeccably shot by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (Hallam Foe, Midnight’s Children), it delights in stiff collars, inky quills, chugging cars and heavy drapes, and you sense the echoing weight of footfall on oak floorboards.
Even as the young wife on an old roué’s arm in the salons of Paris, Colette experiments publicly with sexual mores and enjoys approved extramarital relationships with Louisianan heiress Georgie (Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson, out of sorts with a southern drawl) and brazen cross-dressing scenester “Missy” (Denise Gough), whose “gaydar” twitched a century before the term was coined.
Knightley’s determination plays across her clenched jaw and fiery eyes, while Westmoreland depicts these socially dangerous liaisons frankly and passionately, but without exploitation of the actors’ flesh. Gough is among the film’s stand-out supporting players among a sterling cast also including Fiona Shaw and Robert Pugh. There are some nice cats, too.
Meanwhile, the predominantly British and Irish cast eschew ’Allo ’Allo accents. This will further irritate those who would prefer a French film set in France to be in French, but it cuts out the distraction of comic enunciation. Equally, the Hungarian locations, exquisitely shot and sparingly CGI-ed (except for an establishing exterior of the Moulin Rouge), evoke provincial and urban France without strain.
Although it’s become commonplace now for progressive filmmakers and actors to claim #MeToo credentials for just about any film that gets made, Westmoreland can’t be criticised for announcing Colette in interviews as “the story of a heterosexual marriage with a very strong LGBTQ element… it’s a very queer story”.
He also adds that Willy had “all the advantages of male power”. Thus, when Knightley’s journey of enlightenment puts her in the room for theatre’s first same-sex kiss, Colette’s connection to the modern struggle for authentic identity is more than just wishful thinking.
Colette is released in cinemas on Wednesday 9th January