Towards the end of her years, France’s most celebrated female novelist looked back with rueful humor. “What a wonderful life I’ve had,” Colette wryly observed. “I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”
A similar sentiment might reflect this tasteful tribute to a true rebel: director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”) has an extraordinarily unique subject, but doesn’t seem to realize it until very late in the game.
“Colette” is aesthetically refined, topically relevant, and features a spirited Keira Knightley in the lead. In other words, as a traditional period biopic, it checks all the boxes in fine fashion. But you’d never know it was inspired by a woman whose life was expansive and contradictory and unwieldy in the extreme.
Westmoreland and his cowriters, Richard Glatzer (Westmoreland’s late husband and collaborator) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (“Disobedience”), chose to focus entirely on Colette’s early adulthood, when she was married to Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). The much-older Willy, as he was widely known, was famous as a Parisian writer and libertine. But as the film takes pains to point out, he was a bit of a sham on both counts. He put his name to works others wrote, and encouraged his young wife’s sexual exploration primarily to the extent that it mirrored his.
The two were together for about 14 years, and there is no doubt this was a crucially formative time for Colette. It was Willy who encouraged her to write (or, more accurately, bullied her into it). Her first success was a series of semi-autobiographical Claudine novels, which she wrote, he took credit for, and they both used to raise their profiles.
In the movie, this is also the period in which Colette shifts from an innocent housewife to an independent artist. The plotting is so conventional that we can see the marketing plan: Colette’s makeover allows for lots of great costume changes, some satisfyingly feisty monologues from Knightley, and a movie that makes the most of the #TimesUp moment.
Westmoreland deftly plays up the Belle Époque setting, which takes the sting out of the fact that he’s chosen very British actors to tell a very French story. Indeed, he’s gathered an almost uniformly strong cast, which goes a long way towards balancing the movie’s limitations.
Fiona Shaw has some nice moments as Colette’s formidable mother, and Denise Gough (“Juliet, Naked”) is especially striking as Missy, the lesbian aristocrat with whom Colette had a daringly public affair. (An odd contrast is “Poldark”‘s Eleanor Tomlinson, whose florid Southern accent and campy mannerisms as another of Colette’s lovers belong in a different movie altogether.)
Although West is the designated villain, he turns Willy into an unpredictable foil: the confident charm that attracts Colette so strongly is also the arrogant narcissism that pushes her towards a more fulfilling life.
And what of that life? Only one scene, in which Colette performs a strange and dangerously erotic theater piece, gets at the heart of her innately subversive nature. Even her relationship with Missy — which was, in reality, incredibly risky and complex — is represented primarily by walks through pretty fields. And while Willy talks of Colette’s “volcanic jealousies” and “capricious” moods, we never actually see them. Though Knightley’s charming performance is perfectly suited to this restrained approach, she rarely has the chance to connect authentically with her self-mythologizing, larger-than-life inspiration.
Westmoreland’s primary aim is to present an appealing historical heroine who will resonate today. He accomplishes this goal handily, but then keeps returning to it. Did we need so many moments in which the patriarchal Willy and the independent Colette clash? Couldn’t some have been cut, so we could also witness at least a few of her ensuing triumphs and failures?
Because we spend so much time on her first marriage, we never get to the Colette who became one of the first female war reporters, or wrote a bestselling novel referencing her own affair with her second husband’s teenage stepson, or rescued her Jewish third husband after he was arrested by the Gestapo, or influenced so many of the great minds of her time, or lived long enough to be embraced, shamed, shunned, and celebrated by the same society.
“Colette” does offer us an engaging introduction to a fascinating woman. But it’s hard not to wonder: Why tell the story of an avant-garde, ambisexual iconoclast if you’re planning to play it so safe?