“She devours men… and she doesn’t wear a corset.” That’s how French writer Willy (Dominic West) describes his ideal heroine in Wash Westmoreland’s period biopic Colette, released in UK cinemas on 11th January. It’s a knowing prod at the way in which male writers so often fetishise their female characters, and a sharp point of contrast to the film’s own heroine, Willy’s wife Colette (Keira Knightley), who is just as feisty, if not so titillating to the likes of Willy.
Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873 Burgundy, was a French writer who began her career ghostwriting for her first husband, Willy (real name Henry Gauthier-Villars). Eventually becoming a celebrated novelist, as well as actor and journalist, her personal life is perhaps even more intriguing as her professional, having had numerous affairs with other women, including a long-term relationship with the masculine-attired Mathilde de Morny, also known as ‘Missy’.
This biopic follows Colette’s marriage to Willy and her first forays into novel writing, capturing the three big transformative changes in her early life: moving from rural Saint-Sauver to Paris, marrying libertine Willy, and tasting success with the semi-autobiographical Claudine novels. For sure, the country-girl-comes-to-the-city cliché is hardly new, and with any other heroine this could quickly become hackneyed and tiresome, but this is Colette, and it is her unconventional life and strong personality that drive the story and steer the film away from any of the pitfalls of textbook-flavour biopics and dusty period dramas.
Knightley captures her character with ease, beautifully showcasing Colette’s transformation from naive lover through wronged wife to confident and self-assured artist. Her performance is complemented by an equally assured performance from Dominic West as her husband Willy, who veers from romantic to overbearing to downright pathetic while never straying into caricature.
Both actors are helped by a sharp script, with an unexpected wit and great dialogue that sticks to modern-sounding speech and never gets caught up in airs and graces. This more than suits the story, which feels timely despite the top hats and corsets; this is a historical movie unafraid to show its heroine raging at her unfaithful husband, and portrays same-sex romance as more than euphemism or tragedy. It is hard not to view Colette as a tantalising taster of the kind of films that we may see in the future if filmmakers continue to tell the stories too often neglected in both the classroom and in Hollywood.
Funny, spirited, and modern, Colette the film deftly mirrors the life and character of Colette the woman, and with its unashamed depiction of an unconventional bisexual woman at the turn of the twentieth century, it is truly a historical tale fit for the 21st.
Colette opens in UK cinemas on 11th January 2019.