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Wash Westmoreland’s Colette is A Star Is Born for the belle époque: an early-years biopic of French literary phenomenon Colette that is invigorating, mercenary and sexy. It busies itself with sex and fame – and also something rarely acknowledged in detail in costume dramas about writers: money. This is the story of how talented young author and country mouse Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (played with wand-like grace by Keira Knightley) submits in 1893 to marriage and commercial exploitation by an older man from the big city, the mediocre and flatulent critic-slash-publisher Henri Gauthier-Villars, pen-named “Willy”.
He brings out her wildly popular Claudine novels (racy autobiographical adventures of girlish yearning) under his own name, without giving his wife a smidgen of the acclaim rightly owing to her, still less any loot. Willy is played with a smirk and a goatee by Dominic West, who also, importantly, endows him with bullish charm. Yet West makes him a grisly and decreasingly engaging figure, especially when the philandering Willy becomes someone who needs his mistresses to dress as schoolgirls (in the modish “Claudine” garb) before he can get an erection.
#CacheTonPorc? Colette (as she is to style herself) gets a sweeter revenge. She comes to reject her husband’s dishonesty, embrace her own writerly identity and leave “Willy” in the dustbin of history. But this happens after she has learned something from him about the ways of the world and the peculiarities of the literary and sexual marketplace. It is Willy who has punched up her original prim manuscripts with his own narrative gusto and swarthy romance. He encouraged her, from pervily obsessive fascination and entrepreneurial zeal, to have gay affairs that she could then write about with the names changed. She is no Proustian prisoner, but the film suggests that he has in some sense authored her. Or perhaps it is that Colette allowed herself to be authored as a temporary career move: a necessary apprenticeship and virginity loss.
Knightley brings something brittle and skittish to the part of the young Colette, qualities that soften into sexiness; she is a naïf who is ordered by her mama (the dependably intelligent and complex Fiona Shaw) to take a basket on a country walk so she can collect blackberries for the family’s tea. In fact, she is sneaking into a barn to have sex with her ageing fiance. Once they are married, Colette finds herself in Paris’s exciting world of modernity: new-fangled bicycles and electric light. More importantly, she is to discover a prototypical world of corporate branding in which individual writers can be messed with.
Preposterous Willy fancies himself the head of something like a Hollywood studio churning out hot properties: pulp bestsellers. He is fascinated by the new “talking pictures” and wonders if a “cine-play” could be made of Claudine’s adventures. But the awful truth is that he and all the other hopeless males he employs have no talent. Colette is the only one who has. She has a gift which, in a reversal of gold-mining, needs to de-refined, good writing that must be smudged and smeared with commercial prurience before it will sell. Willy sees this; Colette doesn’t.
Finally, Colette is to fall for the beautiful and androgynous Mathilde De Morny (Denise Gough) with whom she stages a studiedly outrageous theatre event, greeted by the stuffed shirts of Parisian society like the Marquess of Queensberry witnessing the “somdomite” behaviour of Oscar Wilde.
Knightley and West have a tremendous chemistry: two very smart and worldly performances that suggest Colette and Willy did enjoy something like a real love affair, and that Colette was never simply a victim, nor Willy simply an exploiter. Perhaps, to extend the Hollywood analogy, he saw himself an old-style mogul running an industry in its pre-auteur state, when the assignment of authorship was not a priority. But keeping his wife’s earnings certainly was.
This is a highly enjoyable and bracing piece of work from Wash Westmoreland, who with his late partner, Richard Glatzer, made the excellent Still Alice, with Julianne Moore. He co-scripted this movie with Glatzer, who died of ALS or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2015: the film is dedicated to him. There is a cheeky flourish in their script here, when Willy declares that Claudine “astounds us with her moxie”. This film does much the same.
Source: The Guardian
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