This is a film that I hadn’t really heard of until a few months ago but really grabbed my attention when I saw the trailers, especially as a companion piece to The Wife. Now I don’t know how well known French novelist Colette is outside of France, but her works have been translated and she lived a rich enough life to justify a film being made about her, with this focusing on the early stages of her writing career. The film itself is a fascinating look at gender in writing and sexuality in late 19th/early 20th Century France.The film follows the early stages of Colette’s career as an author, when she was living with her first husband Wily, mainly focused around the writing and success of the Claudine books. When the books are released, they become a monster hit, but there are constant difficulties in the relationship between Colette and Wily, through affairs and Wily’s attitude towards Colette, valuing success and money and being a shameless self promoter. As the film goes on, Colette gains her voice more strongly, mainly through becoming a music hall performer, and starts to understand more about her own sexuality. Now the film really works as an exploration of sexism in the literature world through the relationship between Colette and Wily. Wily constantly makes the argument that women will not be successful credited authors and he has to be the one whose name is on the book, gaslighting Colette into falling for him. It creates a strong dynamic between the characters throughout the film, allowing the audience to feel the anger and joy that Colette has at different stages of their relationship and we see how the manipulation works in forms like his praise around her work to buying her a country house for her to work in. There are also little ideas about the commodification of Colette’s image through the licensing of the Claudine books, both for stage and for merchandising, and how Colette feels she needs her name on the book to reclaim that side of her identity, which has been taken away from her and packaged by Wily.
There’s also interesting ideas around sexuality in the film. Some of this has some good comedy based on real life events, such as Colette and Wily having affairs with the same woman at the same time without the other knowing. It raises interesting points regardinf the way affairs are treated by men and women, with Wily showing anger to Colette when she is interested in another man, but being accepting to her wanting to be in a relationship with a woman. There are also interesting ideas raised in the second half of the film regarding gender fluidity with the character of Mathilde de Morny, who goes by masculine pronouns and we see a growing relationship between Colette and Mathilde which gives some great heart to the third act of the film, and also shows the attitudes towards sexuality at the time, with a near riot being caused when Colette and Mathilde kiss on stage.
The only real problem with the film is that Colette’s life is just too rich to be one film. It’s why focusing only on the early part of her career was the right call, but I still think more scenes of her life before Paris and her time as a music hall performer should have been in the film.
The performances meanwhile are strong throughout. Keira Knightley as Colette is excellent, showing her character development from someone more reserved and cautious, to the anger she feels towards Wily, to her growing skill as a writer and her embracing her sexuality at the end of the film and Knightley sells all of those sides of the character effectively. She also does a great job at creating a strong stage persona when she does the music hall scenes and effectively shows how much of herself she put into the Claudine books. Dominic West as Wily meanwhile is an effective character. He shows how he is able to convince people to become ghostwriters for him and how he is able to gaslight and manipulate Colette into writing for him through a mix of charm, when he wishes to be charming, and intimidation, which showing a strong, threatening side to West. This also shows how effective Wily is as a womaniser, and the character dynamic between Colette and Wily works because of how well Knightley and West play off each other. Strong work is also seen from Denise Gough as Mathilde, Eleanor Tomlinson and Aiysha Hill and, even though they’re underutilised, Fiona Shaw and Robert Pugh.
Overall, Colette is an engaging look at literature and sexuality, with themes that show just how revolutionary a figure Colette was at the time, and how important a figure she is. It shows how issues like gender fluidity have evolved over time and how the same struggles facing women like Colette in the early 20th Century are still seen today.
My Rating: 4/5