If there’s one word that aptly describes Colette, it’s intense. I do have a (strong) tendency to feel things intensely anyway, but I have a suspicion that even the most logically minded robot-human would feel at least a flicker of emotion watching this biopic.
I felt unadulterated joy, indomitable rage, smarting sadness, hungry curiosity, soaring lightheartedness – all in 111 minutes.
Keira Knightley (Love Actually, Atonement) takes us on this epic and beautiful journey through the life of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, one of the most celebrated French literary artists of her time. Colette is most famous for writing Gigi and her Claudine series.
A young woman from a country village in France, Colette falls in love with and marries aristocratic Parisian author Henry Gauthier-Villars, or ‘Willy’. In doing so, she’s thrust into a 20th-century upper class Parisian bohemian lifestyle. Witty, original, and nonchalantly lovable, she sees through the sparkly facade of the people in these high society circles. When her and Willy face bankruptcy because his books aren’t making money, Colette finds some purpose in writing for Willy under his name. The books fly off the shelves and bring them fame and fortune, but eventually, Colette grows tired of not being recognized for her work. She outgrows Willy, discovering herself instead.
Despite a rich supporting cast, it is Knightley that carries the intensity of the movie, and it is Knightley that makes my heart dance and plummet and twirl in one of the best performances of her career (IMHO). She plays Colette with such conviction that it’s impossible not to get behind her.
One of the things I found most engaging about this movie was its exploration of sexual identity. Colette befriends Mathilde de Morny, or ‘Missy’ (Denise Gough, Broadway, Royal Court Theatre), a genderfluid woman of high social status. Missy has a huge influence on Colette, encouraging her to explore her identity and preferences – and she does, and she loves what she finds. Colette and Willy both pursue a separate but simultaneous relationship with a Parisian woman (Eleanor Tomlinson, Poldark), and Colette discovers a love for performance which includes scandalous lesbian love scenes with Missy.
Colette’s director, Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice), shows us a 1900’s Parisian society, but through a lens that is so readily accessible, it’s as if it were 2019, with different outfits and a few less iPhones. The fact that I could readily recognize similarities in mindsets between then and now showed me quite strikingly how little society has actually changed in terms of its acceptance of ideas of the Rainbow Community. It’s bizarre that even over 100 years later, people still talk more about whether Kristen Stewart is queer or not than her acting career.
In saying that, for the first time in movie history, Westmoreland has cast two transgender actors (Jake Graf as Gaston de Caillavet and Rebecca Root as the writer Rachilde) in cisgender roles. Although Graf and Root only have small parts in the film, and Gough, who plays Missy, is a cis woman actor cast in a genderfluid role, it’s a good start. As Gough points out in an interview with Nylon, Westmoreland’s casting has a “lesbian playing a straight woman. We have a straight woman playing a bi-curious woman. We have an Asian man playing a man who was historically white. We have a black man who was historically white.” Basically, the casting was intentionally color, gender and sexuality blind.
I think the reason this movie moved me so much was because Knightley plays the part so convincingly that for a while I felt like there was no space between me and Colette. I yearned for freedom as much as she did, and was as liberated as she was when she found it. And after an emotionally intense 111 minutes, I left the movie feeling proud of Knightley, proud of Westmoreland, and infinitely proud of Colette, for having the courage to smash stereotypes long before it was cool.