Keira Knightley shines as the star of Wash Westmoreland’s “Colette,” a beautifully realized biopic about the early years of the celebrated French writer. Fierce yet vulnerable, the actress immerses herself in the role, bringing Colette’s personal struggles — and self-awakening — vividly to life within the lavish Belle Epoche environs established with gorgeous sets, costumes and cimenatography.
As the film opens, young country girl Colette is passionately in love with Henry “Willy” Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a prolific writer and notorious Paris bon vivant who gives up his inheritance (though not his dalliances) to marry her. Willy’s never-ending debts lead to him drafting her into writing books to be published under his name. She comes up with the tale of Claudine, a less-innocent-than-she-seems schoolgirl whose escapades take the world by storm.
Colette and Willy continue to face challenges both personal and professional, and both ultimately seek solace elsewhere, with Colette embarking on a series of affairs with other women, particularly Missy (Denise Gough), who prefers to dress and behave as a man. As Colette learns to acknowledge and embrace her own sexuality and agency, she takes other risks as well: appearing on stage in a scandalous pantomime and asking Willy to include her as a co-author on the next Claudine book. When he refuses, she finds herself at a crucial fork in the road.
The film’s rich, turn-of-the-20th century French sets, design, and costumes bolster the strong lead performances, pulling audiences firmly inside of Colette’s Belle Epoque life. It’s comforting to know how much more of that life she had ahead of her as the movie ends, because it’s clear that the events captured here are just the warm up to Colette’s full-fledged status as a feminist icon. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nikki Baughan: Keira Knightley gives a phenomenal, career-best performance as the eponymous protagonist of Wash Westmoreland’s lavish biopic. But don’t let the sumptuous, elegant period detail fool you; this is a powerful, modern and resonant story of female ambition, determination and defiance.
As the real-life Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who created the 19th century literary sensation ‘Claudine’ only for her work to be credited to her husband Willy (Dominic West), Knightley plots a compelling course from naive farm girl to creative tour-de-force. Through her experiences, the film explores the changing nature of women in society, issues of sexual politics and the importance of the female voice in art and the wider world; all filtered through Colette’s impish, playful personality. Indeed, while Colette’s contemporaries were as tightly bound by gender convention as by their corsets, she breezily ditches dresses for suits and lops off her hair as she strives for an independence she is convinced she deserves. A trailblazer worth celebrating, indeed.
Nell Minow: The beautifully lush late 19th century settings show off the remarkable modernity of the writer, actress, dancer, and iconoclast Collette, who showed France the importance of stories told by and for women. We see the way that telling her story makes her want to own it as well — literally, as her first books were not only published by her husband, but had him as the author. As she owns her voice and her story she becomes fearless about how she will live and who she will love.
Pam Grady: Keira Knightley is sublime as the titular French novelist in this lavish depiction of her birth as a writer during her first marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villiers aka Willy (Dominic West). A well-known author at the time of their marriage, his turn-of-the-20th-century “Claudine” novels created a sensation—except that he didn’t write them, his far more talented wife did. The film paints a portrait of an independent woman who finds some satisfaction in affairs with other women and a career on stage, but wants more than anything else to be recognized for her writing. Director Wash Westmoreland, in his first feature since the death of his filmmaking partner (and husband) Richard Glatzer has made a lush, lively, and evocative drama out of Colette’s scintillating life and struggle to lay claim to her own vivid creation, Claudine.
MaryAnn Johanson What an absolutely terrific movie about an amazing woman who defied gender norms, revolutionized fashion, gave young women a voice unlike any they’d ever had before, demanded to be taken seriously as an artist, demanded that her husband treat her as an equal, and engaged in a whole lot more pushback against late-19th- and early-20th-century misogyny that — as usual — sadly still doesn’t feel all that dated in the early 21st century. I am desperately trying to avoid seeing the irony in the fact that it’s a male director (who also wrote the script, with a male cowriter and — at least there’s this — a female cowriter) who is telling her story. I’m not sure that Colette herself would be amused. But she probably wouldn’t be surprised.
Elizabeth Whittemore: Colette boasts some of Keira Knightly’s most stunning work. Based upon a true story of a female writer claiming her own voice and sensuality, it proves that feminism is anything but a new idea. Delving into gender identity, untraditional marital standards, and the idea that art cannot be defined, Colette pushes boundaries in an age that saught to define women by the men that kept them as trophies. It is a story as relevant today as it ever was.
Esther Iverem: Colette is no prim Victorian literary flick. Based on the life of the controversial pioneering feminist writer, it is driven by passion, creativity, empathy and good acting by Kiera Knightly. Way to make the novelist sexy again!
Jennifer Merin Colette is a splendid biopic about the sublimely controversial feminist writer who created favorite iconic female characters — Claudine and Gigi among them — and lived her own life as an ongoing scandal defying convention and exuding personal creativity. Keira Knightly is superb as Colette, occupying the stunning Belle Epoque environment established by director Wash Westmoreland and his team of terrific cinema artisans. Costumes, sets and cinematography are gorgeous.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Keira Knightley may not be French, but she is wonderful as the legendary French author Colette. Wash Westmoreland’s biopic about the pansexual feminist Belle Epoque writer best remembered for her Claudine books and Gigi. The actress is perhaps at the top of her game in period films, and Colette is no exception. The excellent Dominic West play’s Colette’s libertine husband Willy, a provocative Parisian music critic and writer who for years submitted Colette’s writing under his name. It’s reminiscent of the drama Big Eyes but even more impactful considering how dangerous it was for Colette and Willy to challenge social mores about monogamy, gender roles, and homosexuality in fin de siècle France. Lovingly acted and beautifully shot (by d.p. Giles Nuttgens), the movie is a must-see for bibliophiles and biopic lovers. It was also touching to see Westmoreland’s tribute to his late husband and filmmaking partner Richard Glatzer.
Cate Marquis What a marvelous film! Keira Knightley stars as French novelist Colette in director Wash Westmoreland’s gorgeous and gripping period biopic. The story focuses on the writer’s early years. starting with the marriage of country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette to the older, famous Parisian writer known as Willy (Dominic West). Willy may have once been an author but now he is more of a celebrity brand, paying a stable of ghostwriters to churn out material under his name, while he lives high. Soon Colette is recruited to join the ranks of ghostwriters. In late 19th- early20th century Paris, Colette broke barriers of all sorts. Although the story is set in Paris more than a century ago, this tale of a woman’s awakening to her own worth, her struggle to be free and be herself, and be recognized for her own work is as thrilling as ever, and surprisingly timely. Knightley delivers a splendid performance, taking Colette from a country girl with brains to a worldly woman who was the most popular French woman author of her time, shattering barriers as she rose. This drama is not to be missed.
Marilyn Ferdinand: As one of France’s most celebrated authors, Colette produced dozens of works of fiction that continue to inspire and entertain readers to this day. While her story has been told on television and the big screen before, this BFI film from director Wash Westmoreland pulls out all the stops to glamorize Colette by casting Keira Knightley in the title role and locating her story in a sumptuous and decadent Belle Époque milieu right out of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster. Colette is legitimately considered a feminist icon who led a somewhat unconventional life of bisexual liberation, at least during her younger years, and created female characters who asserted their independence. This film concentrates on her first marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars (pen name Willy), who appears to have pushed her into ghostwriting the salacious Claudine novels under his name that would make both their fortunes. The film takes a lot of liberties with her story, including suggesting that she left Willy for a long-term relationship with a transgender man—in fact, she married a journalist soon after her divorce, a marriage that lasted 12 years and produced a daughter, and following another divorce had a third, happy marriage that lasted from 1925 to her death in 1954. Colette is entertaining, but like the era it depicts, its glittering surface and flat characterizations seem more of a studied pitch to a certain demographic than a full-bodied look at a complicated woman.
Directors: Wash Westmoreland
Release Date: September 21, 2018
Running Time: 111 minutes
Screenwriter: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Distribution Company: Bleecker Street Media
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Esther Iverem, MaryAnn Johanson, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Kristen Page-Kirby, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Edited by Jennifer Merin