2018, R, 111 min. Directed by Wash Westmoreland. Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough, Fiona Shaw, Aiysha Hart, Robert Pugh.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Oct. 5, 2018
If you aren’t a Francophile, or versed in early 20th century popular fiction of that particular Gallic country, you can be forgiven for having a blind spot about Colette (Knightley), née Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, an extremely popular novelist, whose Claudine series was the talk of Paris during those years, with its scintillating prose and provocative activities. The fact that this series of novels was published under the name of her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) aka “Willy," makes up most of the drama in this biopic of the lauded author.
Born in rural France, Colette soon gets swept up by Willy and the decadent Parisian lifestyle, although, in the beginning of their matrimony, he tended to keep her secluded while he sowed his oats elsewhere. When her reminiscences of an idyllic past, coupled with some saucy injections, prove to be a hit (under his name, of course, because female authors don’t sell books. George Sand, anyone?), Colette is given a freedom she has never enjoyed, if only for a time. She and Willy enter into an agreement that lets them both discover their own desires: His tend toward just being an often destitute libertine (there are more than a few scenes of him selling off various pieces of furniture to pay their debts), but hers veer toward the sapphic. That the director Westmoreland (of the Alzheimer's epic Still Alice) relies on the linchpin of Colette’s sexuality to provide the majority of the drama in this lavish, but frankly, meandering and conventional biopic is perhaps its undoing. It never becomes a bad film, with Erik Satie or West’s facial hair keeping you busy with what’s onscreen, it seems like an opportunity lost. Colette’s infamous love affair with Mathilde de Morny (Gough) – aka “Missy,” as everyone has nicknames in the past – is given a nod in the third act. Yet the film seems to end on a note of melancholy, which does the famed author no justice, as she went on to much acclaim. To have that addressed in the written postscript inspires one to wonder if maybe the microscopic view of her early years could have been broadened to include the rest of her life, but such are the perils of depicting a life. Regardless, Colette is a good primer for a wonderful author, and a reflection on how your life will never turn out as you think.