Colette is a sexy, smart and informative story about a real life figure who deserves a proper remembrance. Sidonie Gabrielle Colette was incredible, a writer, an actress, a pure iconoclast in a time when iconoclasts were some of the most brave people on the planet. Those willing to stand up and be different faced jail, poverty, even death in Colette’s day, even in the supposedly freewheeling Paris of the 19th and early 20th century.
Keira Knightley portrays Colette as a young woman who had the luck of actually falling in love with the man she was promised to. At the time, most people in Paris loved Henry ‘Willy’ Gauthier Villars (Dominic West). He was a massive personality. Willy was a cultural gadfly, a charming, thoroughly gregarious man of means who never failed to pick up a check and make eyes at every woman in the room, all part of endless cycle of marketing himself as a brand name writer.
Willy wasn’t really a man of means however. He was actually mostly broke due to his dedication to drinking, gambling and his many attempts to impress women, including his beautiful, much younger wife. Desperately in need of more writing product in the pipeline, Willy finally turns to Colette, the one writer he doesn’t have to pay and won’t hold him up for a payday. When Colette delivers an immediate smash called “Claudette,” their problems should be solved.
Colette however, isn’t interested in writing, especially in writing something that Willy would eventually take credit for. She wants to have her own life and as their two lives chafe against each other’s needs and desires, the story picks up into a whirlwind of sex and recriminations. When Colette falls for an American woman, Willy encourages it as a way to justify his own infidelity and as a cudgel to get Colette to continue writing. When he decides that he to must sleep with this woman, things begin to get nasty.
Colette is an exceptionally well told story about young country girl, slowly becoming the woman she was meant to be. Keira Knightley is wonderful with her huge, expressive eyes and effortless wit, she brings forth a Colette that you could never doubt was meant to be a star. If there is one issue with Knightley’s performance it is that she is so much better than co-star Dominic West, an actor inferior in every way to Knightley.
West’s performance works only in particular context. Willy is intended to be portrayed as a spineless shell and West definitely portrays that aspect. Unfortunately, he’s so lacking in every other aspect that I found it hard to believe that he was this beloved society gadfly. I especially found it hard to believe a woman as incredible Colette could stand this guy for more than a minute. We’d be talking about one of the best movies of 2018 if an actor half as talented as Keira Knightley were playing opposite her.
Colette was directed by Wash Westmoreland whose previous film was also a showcase for an incredible leading lady. Westmoreland directed Julianne Moore in her remarkable Alzheimer’s drama, Still Alice in 2014. That film could not be any more different from Colette but, what they share is a dedication to showcasing a leading lady in a remarkable performance. Westmoreland has a tremendous eye for moments and both Still Alice and Colette have moments of remarkable power.
Colette features a moment in which Keira dresses down West’s Willy so much you feel like the actor might not survive. Knightley’s fury is righteous and the emotion is a wallop. Knightley has been accused of being slight as an actress, a shot at her body type more than her acting in my opinion, but here, wow, she is ferocious. Her acting power is devastating and even though West is giving her little to work with, Knightley’s power still resonates.
Colette is a brilliant showcase for an actress too often underestimated. I can’t claim to have always valued her but in looking back, I can’t think of a single film where she hasn’t impressed me. Even in her best known role, the Oscar nominated Atonement, I didn’t like the movie, but Knightley, I absolutely adored her. She makes movies less than her better and great movies like Begin Again or the criminally under-seen Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, she makes transcendent.
The real life Colette was a remarkable woman, a brilliant bestselling writer and openly gay at a time when such things weren’t safe. In England she could have been prosecuted for living openly with the woman she eventually came to fall in love with and the two struggled in France, though less than they would have in other parts of the world at that time. Colette persisted and her talent won the day and the movie based on her remarkable life is a loving tribute.
See Colette for Keira Knightley and appreciate Wash Westmoreland, a director who doesn’t work all that often but when he does, he knows to work with the right leading lady.