Review by Jacquelin Hipes
It’s truly astonishing to compare how the deeds and words that define a scandal have changed through the generations. Certain behaviors have progressed from salacious to blasé, while others remain stumbling blocks for a vocal minority—or, to be fair, majority—to this day. When Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette kissed another woman on-stage at the Moulin Rouge in 1907, it nearly resulted in a riot. The reaction might sound extreme to modern ears, but the demonstration that brought it on was hardly the most daring in the novelist/actress’ life. It is, however, one of the most audacious things to happen in Colette, the biographical drama directed by Wash Westmoreland, which is a bit of a shame.
Colette opens on the courtship of its title character (played with great verve by Kiera Knightly) by Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), better known by his nom-de-plume, Willy. Raised in the quiet French countryside, Colette quickly feels overwhelmed by the raucous salons and flexible morals of Paris after moving there with Willy following their marriage. Although her husband indulges in extravagant dinners, gambling, and lavish parties, the couple’s financial situation is less than ideal. Willy’s family disinherited him for marrying a country girl with no dowry, and his occupation as a “writer”—in actuality a benevolent dictator, commanding a team of ghostwriters to produce content published under his name—brings in far less than he spends.
With creditors and unpaid writers pounding on his door, Willy directs his wife to put pen to paper in a fit of desperation. Except: what Colette writes is actually quite good. Drawing on her childhood in the village of Saint-Sauveur and spicing up the narrative with some of her husband’s bawdy suggestions, Colette produces the novel Claudine à l’école, or Claudine in School. The book is a sensation, although the publisher wryly notes that it’s schoolgirls, rather than randy men, who make up the majority of readers. Willy can’t resist the lure of a cash cow: he compels Colette to write three more Claudine novels in as many years, persuading, pleading, and even locking her in the study in an effort to churn out more pages.
All four are published under his name alone.
As the power struggle between Colette’s private accomplishments and Willy’s public accolades rages quietly through the years, their unconventional approach to marriage begins to take center stage. Both commit adultery with varying degrees of acquiescence from their spouse; they even undertake separate affairs with the same disgraced Louisiana debutant, exploits which feature heavily in the third Claudine novel. Vacillating between co-conspirators and adversaries, Colette and Willy are at their most interesting when placed opposite one another, perfectly positioned to draw attention to the dichotomies of age, gender, talent, and morality that develop between them.
Knightly is in top form as the titular Colette, easing from wide-eyed naiveté to self-assurance over the roughly fifteen years the film covers. Articulate and impassioned, she makes it readily apparent that Colette far outclasses her husband, even in the early days of their marriage when her inexperience puts her at a disadvantage. West is odiously pompous and smarmy in all of the appropriate moments; you may not often enjoy Willy’s company, but West does an admirable job making sure that you don’t.
It is a bit disappointing that the film’s most scandalous moments are relatively tame compared to some of the happenings in Colette’s later life, years that included two more marriages, an affair with her stepson, and surviving the occupation of Paris. Westmoreland has also made a film that feels a little too slickly produced at times, although that also means it is always a treat to look at. No one in the overwhelmingly British cast makes an attempt at a French accent; whether that counts as a positive or a negative will surely vary among viewers.
Strong lead performances by Knightly and West overshadow a lagging middle section and a pat quality to the storytelling that sometimes diminishes the real-life vivacity of its subjects. Period drama buffs will find plenty to drool over in the detailed set-pieces and those who have followed Knightly since her spirited debut in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise should enjoy her latest engaging, nuanced turn.
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