The fascinating fact about Colette, based on the real life of the celebrated French author, is that is a story of female liberation. During the Belle Epoque period in Paris at the turn of the 20th Century in society men were openly promiscuous and wives were expected to demurely turn a blind eye, but Colette took a leaf out of their book and had liaisons of her own. Even more surprising was that they were with women, and she entered into them with her husband’s consent.
The movie starts with young Colette (Keira Knightley) still living at her home in the country now in somewhat impoverished circumstances with her fretful mother (Fiona Shaw) and war-hero father (Robert Pugh). She is courted surreptitiously by Henry Gauthier-Villars, aka “Willy,” (Dominic West) a family friend, and even though he is some 20 years old and Colette has no dowry they end up married and moving to Paris.
Willy was a popular author and critic whose work was provided by a “factory” of writers that he mercilessly exploited. Always living a lavish lifestyle way above his means he was constantly broke, and one occasion persuaded, or rather forced, Colette to become part of his workforce. He initially rejected her first novel as being too insipid but then demanded it have ‘less literature and more spice”.
This was the first of the Claudine books and was an enormous success making Willy very rich and even more notorious. Refusing to share any of the success with Colette, he did however buy her a beautiful cottage in the country, but purely as a means to ‘imprison’ her so that she could write another bestseller to be published under his name.
Although there were times like this when Willy clearly bullied Collette, their relationship was never straight forward. There was a deep bond between the two of them, and she never left him when she discovered his infidelities, although she did almost want to kill him when she discovered that he was also sleeping with her own lover Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson).
It was Colette’s insistence that her name go on the latest book as co-author that signalled the beginning of the end of her relationship with Willy. Now in a relationship with the cross-dressing Mathilde de Morny, or Missy (Denise Gough) with whom she took up a career on the stage with , she finally got to publish her first novel under her own name.
Collette was conceived and written by gay husbands Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and after Glatzer’s untimely death, this became the first movie Westmoreland directed on his own. It was no surprise that they handled Colette’s same-sex relationships with such clear understanding and sympathy without a hint of any of the oft-usual sensationalism.
Knightley who is so well suited to period dramas was quite a revelation putting in an extraordinarily mature performance which could easily count as her career best. Her ‘Colette’ was fiercely determined, independent, extremely relatable and a joy to watch. She was matched beautifully by a boisterous performance by West as her self-centred chancer of a husband.
Beautifully short and with an excellent sound track from opera composer Thomas Adès, this delightfully entertaining is a worthy tribute to Glatzer to whom the movie is dedicated too.