Even those of us who know of the French writer Colette probably don’t know that she ghost-wrote a series of popular novels under her husband’s name, slept with women at her pleasure and otherwise asserted herself in a very unladylike manner.
Keira Knightley, in the title role of “Colette,” brings the early 20th century writer to life with vivid emotion, paired with a strong performance by Dominic West who plays her domineering but somehow unhateable husband, Willy. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday in the premieres section.
The film joins a rush of women-themed movies to debut at the Sundance Film Festival this year and is the second one to screen in 24 hours that takes place in the 1890s, a time of tumultuous cultural, economic and political change. (The other film was “Lizzie,” about hatchet-wielding Lizzie Borden, also set in 1892.) Like the other film, it manages to set the stage for modern womanhood and the complicated world of contemporary feminism.
From a script by Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, director Wash Westmoreland weaves a beautiful tapestry of life in rural France, where Colette is raised, and follows her her gradual embrace of the racy intellectual atmosphere of fin-de-siecle Paris with dreamlike sets and costumes.
For years, Colette wrote a series of wildly popular novels with a main character, Claudine, based on herself. The novels became a Harry Potter-like sensation at the time, inspiring “Claudine” schoolgirl outfits and fangirl devotion – to Colette’s husband.
Colette is no demure woman of the fading Victorian era. Instead, she wants to test boundaries, but even so, she finds herself a near-prisoner of her charismatic, older husband, Willy, who publishes her work under his name.
Meanwhile, though, Colette pursued her own path, seducing women before falling in love with a boldly cross-dressing aristocrat, also a woman. As she grows into her rising confidence, she seeks to reclaim her author’s title, as well as a firmly 20th century identity.
In a crescendo of claiming her identity, Colette finally breaks with Willy and – in a scene that could easily substitute for a modern-day #MeToo moment – accuses the culture. Men are allowed to hurt women with abandon, she says, and get away with it by saying, “That’s what men do.”
In the role, Knightley owns both the insecurities and self-assurance of the talented Colette. West creates a monster in Willy, but somehow manages to keep us laughing as he leads wild dancing on the tables at the Moulin Rouge.
“She made sense to me very quickly,” explained Knightley at the premiere at the Eccles on Saturday night. “Their relationshiop was so clear, I understood it and her.”
Westmoreland dedicated the film to his husband, Glatzer, who died before the film was finished. It is being sold by CAA and Endeavor Content.