Keira Knightly has made something of a name for herself in period pieces, from Lizzie Bennett in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice, to one half of the star-crossed lovers of Atonement, to her most recent foray into the genre, Wash Westmoreland’s Colette. Knightley is the title character, the French author and feminist of the early 20th Century who lived by her own rules (once she figured out what those were) long before society understood what to do with someone so independent.
Colette opens with a young Gaby (full name: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) waking in her small bedroom in her parents’ home in the country, a modest existence by any standards. With long, unkempt braids and a simple cotton day dress, Gaby departs for a solitary walk in the countryside and we already know one thing about our heroine: she chooses her own path. That same afternoon, the bombastic yet charming Willy (Dominic West) arrives for tea; the dowry-less Gaby would be so lucky to be proposed to by such an accomplished, wealthy man! And indeed she is, as Willy whisks her away to Paris, where he’s already an established author with a stable of ghostwriters keeping his business afloat. Gaby settles into life as wife and secretary, attending society events with Willy even as she feels out of sorts among this creative elite. Before one such occasion, she gives up entirely on fitting into the corseted gown Willy’s bought for her, instead opting for one of her simpler country frocks. Lesson two: our Gaby puts her own comfort and preference above any external expectations.
It’s just these hints at Colette’s internal constitution that ultimately build the main thread of the film (written by Westmoreland (Still Alice), Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz). Over the time we spend with her (ultimately a very formative couple of decades), Knightley takes Colette from a country mouse with equal parts moxie and naïveté to a full-blown, confident feminist who’s unabashedly living her truth. This character development might not have been so successful in lesser hands, but Knightley delivers each stage of Colette’s evolution with a studied, steady hand. She’s upstaged, unfortunately, in any scene shared with West, whose portrayal of the narcissistic, manipulative Willy, slick as it is, gets too much focus in a story meant to be Colette’s. But I digress…
Strapped for cash and without any quality writing coming in, Colette presents Willy with a novel of her own, based on stories from her provincial childhood. With a little editorializing in the more salacious bits, Willy publishes the book under his own name. Soon, he’s once again the toast of the town as copies of “Claudine à l’école” fly off the shelves. Colette (she’s now going by this name) goes along with her husband’s ruse, even writing more books in the “Claudine” series (sometimes by force, as when Willy literally locks her in a room to force her to write. Abusive, much?). But as we’ve learned, Colette is not wired to keep this light of hers under a bushel, and soon she’s pushing Willy to publish her stories under her own name.
The demand marks a turning point in their relationship, both personal and professional. Colette had long since discovered Willy’s extramarital affairs, emboldening her to pursue her own as well; quite a bit of time is dedicated to the affair Willy and Colette carry on (separately) with the same woman, a sequence that unfortunately plays more titillating than illuminating. It’s not the only sequence in Colette’s extraordinary, trail-blazing life that gets gussied up and glossed over for the big screen; scenes with Colette’s long-term partner Mathilde de Morny (Missy) err on the side of spectacle rather than emotion as well.
The film leans hard into the period in which it takes place, from turn-of-the-century French countryside to Paris during the Belle Epoque, and the lush interior design and tailored fashions of the day are on solid display in a film that is quite gorgeous to look at. Knightley, West and the rest of the cast seem quite at home in the era, and Colette, a woman who changed so much for future generations through her personal conviction to live her own life, deserves the cinematic treatment to be sure. Westmoreland’s effort, however, allows too much of Hollywood—all those plush surroundings and gentle edges—to sneak in (and too much of the male gaze), a penchant that keeps the proceedings from ever letting Colette’s true impact be understood. Despite Knightley’s winning performance as a woman evolving, a woman who wouldn’t be told how to live, Colette’s most impressive contributions to literature and the bulk of her long, storied life (successes and scandals alike) are relegated to an epilogue.
Understandably, no one film can ever fit in every formative moment or historical happening of a well-lived life. It would be a shame, though, if audiences see Colette and leave thinking this is all there is to the woman at the center of it; like her “Claudine” series, the first installment is only the beginning.