Last year, I did a blog post on the historically based movies I was most excited to see. Number 1 was Colette, a film starring the queen of period-pieces, Keira Knightley, and based on the French writer. Here is the brief description I wrote of the film (and you can check out the rest on the list here):
The movie is based on the life of Gabrielle Sidonie Colette who married a controlling Parisian man named Willy who was 14 years her senior. Her creativity flourished when he introduced her to the bohemians of Paris, and recognizing her talent, convinced her to publish her writing under his name. Her "Claudine" series was so popular that she and her husband became the first modern celebrity couple. Increasingly frustrated by the lack of recognition, however, Colette began an affair with the Marquise de Belbeuf...a woman.
Are you not sold?
Well it took me a year, but recently I was on a plane to Ohio and I got to watch a historical double header of Mary Shelley and Colette. More on Mary Shelley very soon, but for now, let’s talk Colette. Should you watch it?
First let’s talk technical. The cinematography and costume design is divine. This is Belle Epoque Paris and the salons, music, and atmosphere were artfully done. There is a scene where Willy brings Colette to her very first party in Paris and she is wearing a country dress around women decked out in flowing fabrics and adornments. The musical choice for this scene was a sort of carnival-esque waltz and Keira Knightley’s eyes conveyed so much - awe, excitement but also a little disbelief at how pompous some of the artsy Parisians could be. If you are a Francophile, this movie has luscious scenery, gardens, and houses. If nothing else, you’ll like it for that.
Now let’s talk story. I had never heard of this Willy gentleman and it really bugged me that he didn’t seem to have a name other than Willy. You can easily Google and find out his name but I have to tell you, by the end of the movie I hated him so much all I could think was, “Yeah just having a single obnoxious word as your name works.” Dominic West is so magnificent at playing jerks. This performance was really an extension of his brilliant work as Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
We start with Willy courting Colette at her parent’s house in Burgundy. She seems intrigued but at this point still very girlish (which was sort of weird to see Keira acting like a teen). BUT THEN we see them hooking up in the barn right after said meeting with parents!! This was very exciting to me because Willy kind of bowls everyone over and this was the first instance where you’re like WOA COLETTE GET IT GIRL. There are many such instances.
The film leaves the idyllic country for Paris where we see what Willy does. He is a famous writer in Paris, but we learn, he doesn’t actually write anything. He hires other people to write for him. He was a notorious libertine and had many affairs so this next portion of the movie is kind of culture shock for Colette. She’s bored with the Parisian party life, has nothing to do, and is still figuring out her feelings for this man who is so much older than her and cheating on her.
Lucky for us and for literature the creep had Colette try her hand at writing stories under his name. Surprise, surprise she has talent and her Claudine novels become a sensation. At first Colette seems to think this is funny and likes watching everyone fall over themselves to praise Willy. But during this time, Colette’s sexuality is awakened when she finds herself attracted to the American wife of a wealthy businessman. Because he can’t talk, Willy encourages their liason and Colette ends up having a passionate, sexual relationship with this woman (there are sex scenes and nudity but I’d say it’s pretty tame).
BUT THEN WILLY HOOKS UP WITH COLETTE’S LOVER! And that folks is when Colette was done. Her novels were getting popular, she recognized the man she married was a jerk, and she wanted to be with ladies! Willy became abusive at this point and would lock her in rooms to force her to keep writing for him.
Colette eventually found love with her Marquise and the two of them started a traveling acting troupe and she kicked Willy to the curb. GOOD.
That is a very abbreviated version of the movie and here’s what I think: I would have liked way more time spent on Colette and the Marquise. The Marquise seemed super interesting but didn’t talk very much and I wanted more. I think Keira Knightley and Dominic West were perfectly cast. But much like in the real story, Willy definitely seemed to have more air time and good lines. Or maybe Keira’s performance (I talk about her like she’s my friend) was just more understated than West’s. I’m not sure. But the whole time I was cheering her on.
I think this is a great introduction to a writer that many Americans haven’t heard of and I really loved getting to see a diversity of relationships in a historical piece. I feel like historical pieces gloss over a lot of queer relationships and it was fun to see an empowering example.
Come for the costumes, female liberation, and empowering queer relationships. Stay for seeing a bad dude get his comeuppance!