Colette tells the story of a real-life woman who finds her voice and identity, yet is denied recognition.
In 1893, a Parisian author, publisher and libertine marries a rural Burgundy lass whom he had courted behind her family’s back in the hay shed.
With a factory of writers pumping out articles, reviews and novels under his pen name of ‘Willy’ and more bills to pay than he had cash in the bank, he takes advantage of his young wife’s skill of storytelling and has considerable financial success publishing a series of semi-autobiographical novels she writes about ‘Claudine’.
His expensive habit of philandering does not abate, yet he refuses her request to be acknowledged as co-author of the works that are now sustaining their finances. She too starts to enjoy the company of other women and expands her talents from the page to the stage.
Kiera Knightly delivers a mesmerising performance as the down-to-earth, unfussy, yet excitable young girl who endures the social whirlwind of Parisian high society and realised that her marital and creative partnership is not evenly balanced.
“I promise I won’t sleep with her again; it’s what men do in the city.”
Dominic West creates a charming and sophisticated Willy, full of empty promises and manipulating all those around him to profit his enterprises at their expense. Horrible yet relatable.
Knightly is delightfully harsh – and believably so – when she lays into her aptly named husband who demonstrates that he is as louche as the fiction he produces. She transforms Colette from being his servile wife to become other people’s lover, pushing gender and sexual boundaries to search for respect and contentment. Her skill as an actor shines through in a confrontation late on in the film which in one take slowly zooms in on Knightly’s face as she holds her husband’s gaze and eviscerates his bad character.
While the use of verbal English and written French initially distracts, the sumptuous wardrobes and sets – that will surely win awards in four weeks’ time – ground the action in opulent Paris in the late 19th century, and the script is allowed to keep English double entendres like “You don’t have to worry about Willy” that raise a smile and also point to the antagonist’s increasing impotence.
Director Wash Westmoreland uses Colette to hold a mirror up to today’s society. The reflection motif is there visually with Giles Nuttgens’ stunning cinematography allowing the audience to watch action through a mirror in the remarkable opening shot, before repeating the trick in the next two scenes and at intervals throughout the film. Do men still take the credit – knowingly or systemically – for women’s contribution to organisations and society at large? Are women judged by different and harsher rules than men? (Themes familiar from The Front Runner which is also running in local cinemas.)
Colette is being screened in the Queen’s Film Theatre and Omniplex cinemas.