If you know anything at all about the life story of French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), you don’t need to be told that the villain is her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, a notoriously decadent Parisian author, music critic and bon vivant who published under the nickname Willy. You already know that Willy was Colette’s Svengali, locking her in a room and forcing her to write. His greatest commercial successes were the first four of her novels, the Claudine series, based on reminiscences of her girlhood but touted as his own writing. Only after their divorce was the actual author able to reclaim them under her own name.
Consequently, making a movie version of Colette’s life is an undertaking fraught with the hazards of coming off like a Women’s Lit 101 course. During the days of feminism’s Second Wave, newly radicalized audiences would have cheered the story of a brilliant woman grossly wronged, eventually triumphing over her oppressor. Such a story, with such a one-dimensional villain, wouldn’t satisfy many thoughtful viewers anymore. It would seem too simplistic, too obvious. Audiences would be asking themselves, “If she’s so intelligent and so strong and so unconventional, and he’s so blatantly awful, why did she put up with Willy for 17 years?”
To a large degree, Wash Westmoreland’s new biopic Colette succeeds because it addresses those concerns very thoroughly and deliberately. No matter how gorgeous the cinematography, the art direction, the score, the fabulous Fin de Siècle period detail, it would not have worked if Westmoreland hadn’t cast two actors in the central roles who were fully capable of bringing Colette and Willy to vivid, relatable life and of conveying the chemistry that kept them together for so long. As with Katherina and Petruchio in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, the modern audience needs to be convinced that these two people are passionately in love with each other, or we will not for a moment buy the ickiness of their marital arrangement. Fortunately, he found those actors in Keira Knightley and Dominic West.
First things first: Colette may go down as Knightley’s best role and finest performance ever. She is luminous, dynamic, capturing the great author’s steely intelligence, her sensuality, her exquisite powers of observation and expression. There are frequent flashes of indignation here, particularly whenever she discovers that Willy has been lying to her; his deceptions rile her far more than his infidelities per se. But there is never a jot of self-pity – nor do we pity Colette, though we are indignant on her behalf. Such is the indomitable life force of this character that we cannot see her as a victim; it would feel patronizing. For the time that it lasts, this is clearly a chosen, if horribly codependent, relationship.
West’s job here is the tougher one: to show us what Colette sees in him, as Willy is a vain, tyrannical, self-indulgent creature. His wife is not the only person who writes books and articles for which he takes the credit and most of the pay; he calls his writing shop “the Factory.” Though commercially successful and the toast of Paris socially, with his razor wit and ability to boost or sink careers with a critical review, he wastes enormous quantities of cash on kept women, gambling and lavish entertaining. Then he complains to his employees and creditors that he’s always broke.
But Willy also wields immense charm, and intelligence enough to be a worthy verbal sparring partner. He uses his wife’s superior talent shamelessly, but does not shrink from acknowledging his admiration for it privately. When he tells Colette, every time she determines to leave him, that he could never love another woman the way he loves her, we want to believe him as much as she does. West convinces us that he believes it himself. There is ample toxicity in their arrangement, but there are also many moments of mutual inspiration and delight.
There’s enough juice in this pairing, and in Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Richard Glatzer’s sparkling screenplay, to propel Colette briskly through its 111-minute running time; I could gladly have sat through another 111 minutes following Colette’s further adventures after her split with Willy. The author lived a long, scandalous and highly eventful life, after all, in addition to receiving eventual acclaim as one of France’s most gifted and accomplished literary figures. The movie ends when it’s seemingly just getting started. And I haven’t even mentioned the rest of the excellent cast, who include Denise Gough and Eleanor Tomlinson as two of Colette’s many female lovers, Mathilde de Morny and Georgie Raoul-Duval, and Fiona Shaw as her mother, Sido. If you have any taste at all for costume dramas, stormy romances, feisty women, smart writing and/or fine acting, check out Colette while it’s playing in our local art cinemas. You won’t be sorry.