' ' Cinema Romantico: Colette

Monday, November 05, 2018


As “Colette” opens, the eponymous Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), a French woman just out of school, is having lunch with her parents and an older Parisian critic and writer, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). The sequence, despite Henry’s self-impressed boasts, feels stuffy and Colette comes across disconnected. After lunch, however, she takes a walk and the movie cuts to her and Henry in a barn going for a romp in the hay, foreshadowing how she frequently usurps assumptions. And though she and Henry are quickly married, and she moves to Paris, even in these early passages where the pace of life picks up, Knightley’s patented languorous cool exudes indolence as she sits off to the side and watches an army of ghostwriters fail to prop up her husband’s quasi-booming business as a bard named Willy. Eventually, running low on money and desperate, Willy suggests Sidonie take up a pen. Knightley cocks her head to the right and her jaw falls open; you can see her thinking she had never thought about that and now she is.

The real Sidonie lived a full, varied life, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, marrying three times, so much so that the movie ends just when it seems as her life is ready to truly take flight, evoked in the closing credits that explain some of her ensuing achievements and issues. To tackle the character’s entire life, however, would have required either an unmanageable running time or biographical style narrative told in reductive slices. As such, director Wash Westmoreland and his co-screenwriters, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, smartly focus in on Sidonie’s transformation into her mononymous nom de plume as she becomes the unwitting toast of Paris for her Claudine book series bearing her husband’s name.

Most remarkable is how “Colette” straddles the line between reverie and rage. There are similarities between Westmoreland’s film and the recently released “The Wife” where Glenn Close’s character was revealed to have ghost-written all her Nobel Prize winning husband’s work. But the latter was set in the past, steeped in regret and rage, and centered on a mystery. There is no mystery in “Colette” since we see it all through her eyes, and while eventually her resentment rightfully simmers and boils up, she also goes along for the ruse since writing as someone else leads to self-discovery. If that sounds contradictory, so is most of the film, as Colette proves enamored by and enervated with Paris’s high style, and her husband both encourages her independence and keeps her constrained. The paradoxical air is merely furthered by Knightley’s performance, she of the “another period piece?” memes who nonetheless imbues her period woman with an infusion of modernity, standing figuratively eye-to-eye with West.

That is no small task given West’s blustery, pompous, delicious turn. If the character is not exactly likable, the actor is nevertheless persuasive, sort of evincing expert turn-of-the-century brand management that carries you away despite yourself. And simply in the actors’ energy together, you believe that Colette and Willy belong together, even as they step out on one another, sometimes at the other’s encouragement, briefly with the same woman. That particular episode, in fact, finds husband and wife stealing the woman’s story for their own writerly gain, skewing your notion of sympathy, purposely, wonderfully mangling staid moral lines. And when Colette and Willy sit together afterwards, having a pulled fast one to still get the story published, slurping down oysters, your guilt basically gets blunted into oblivion by the sheer ecstasy stitched across their faces.

The emergent, unfortunate conundrum, however, is that just when Colette truly becomes emotionally and artistically unchained, the movie’s electrical charge gets tamped down as the narrative gets more streamlined, frequently reducing Colette’s emotional epiphanies to soundbites rather than letting her live them out. And though her relationship with the transgender Missy (Denise Gough) is a victory on representative terms, the film still seems to be playing coy with their relationship, siphoning it of so much deserved vivacity, never mind rendering Missy more as an agent of change on Colette’s shoulder more than their own person. Even so, there is a distinct thrill in Colette untethering herself from the era-expected sexual norms, which Andrea Flesch’s costume design helps to bring home; when Colette shows up in that suit, dress be damned, it stops the show. Here’s a period piece that deserves an Oscar nom.

Early in the film, Willy locks his wife in her room as a means of forcing her to write. She protests for a moment but quickly ceases and then sits down to write. If the scene rings a bit false, failing to portray Willy’s act in the proper monstrous light and succumbing to the cliché of a writer instantaneously authoring genius, it also rings true. After all, he might have locked her up, but she pens her liberation.

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