Review “Colette”: A Triumph of the Female Voice

I remembered hearing the name Claudine in Literature courses. As I wasn’t much for French literature, I never read the books and most likely forgot entirely about their existence. However, when I saw the trailer for “Colette” I was intrigued. Keira Knightley is a riveting actress and the story was compelling. With the historical aspects and the acting, it was everything I was hoping for, incredible, rich, and revelatory.

The movie, directed by Wash Westmoreland, from a screenplay by Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, based upon the life of the French novelist Colette. In 1893 young Gabrielle Sidonie Colette (Keira Knightley) marries the charismatic and dominating libertine Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) known as Willy. Willy, a writer and music critic introduces her to the avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles of Paris. He maintained a stable of ghostwriters and eventually turns to Gabrielle to write for him, her novel published under his name. The book, Claudine, semi-autobiographical about Colette’s school days, becomes wildly successful, which means more books must be written. Willy resorts to locking her in a room to write. His many affairs and his controlling ways cause friction between the pair.

Willy encourages Colette’s interest in lesbian alliances, the pair even sleeping with the same woman at one point, the famous affair with Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson), a rich American. Eventually, an affair with the gender defying Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf (Denise Gough) encourages her to see through Willy’s controlling ways and gain confidence in herself. Lack of recognition for her work inspires her to break free even as Willy attempts to maintain his hold on her.

As a woman, whether this story is completely truthful is less important than the themes it builds. It explores the metamorphosis of Gabrielle Sidonie Colette into Colette as she explores her identity within male society. It plays with the expectations cast for all women, even in modern society by the men around them. Women should be ladylike, behave, not speak forcefully. But this film turns much of those ideas around, showing what a triumph Colette is as she embraces her identity, exploring her sexuality and finding her voice through her writing. Most especially it captures her taking back her writing from her husband, Willy, as she finally transforms and publishes her writing under her own name, despite being told she couldn’t do it.

Another aspect it gives us is the exploration of gender identity and gender roles, what it means to be a woman. One of Colette’s relationships is with (Missy) Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf who wore men’s clothing and may have been transgender. While historically there is no solid proof of Missy identifying as male, the movie certainly touches upon the possibility and holds that she did call herself a man. Whether it it true or not, it is incredible to see it play out on screen and it is of value to have a role like this on screen, allowing us to see the potentiality for defying gender identity even in the previous century. It gives expression for those with the same truths.

Another element is the exploration of sexuality, the burgeoning sexual revolution heightened by the turn of the century and artistic circles of Paris. While now we may see it as nothing unusual for a woman to have an affair with another woman, it was different in Colette’s time period. Seeing those relationships on film is an important aspect of the writer’s life but more importantly, it is another way that she guided changes in society as well as showing the freeing of her identity from the mores of society at the time and the constrictions of a male dominated society. It also illustrates the changes in society as women began to develop more of a voice in society as a whole.

One of the Wash Westmoreland illustrates the importance of the female voice in the film is that he consistently maintains the camera on Keira Knightley, keeping her the center of the piece and the center of the film screen. While Dominic West gets plenty of time on screen, Westmoreland keeps that focus on Knightley when she in appearing next to anyone else in the movie. This is a brilliant way to keep the story on the most important person, Colette.

The cinematography is a key component to the success of the film as are the choices in clothing and music. The shots of the countryside are beautiful, giving us insight into Colette’s world prior to meeting Willy. The music matches the time period, including several songs that I, having a background in music history, recognized distinctly as in use during the time. The music and clothing lent authenticity and believability to the film, drawing me in as a viewer and helping me stay engaged in the movie.

The acting is amazing. Keira Knightley is beautifully expressive as Colette. She transforms from wide eyed innocent to self confident woman, making the transition seem natural and seamless, her character eventually learning that as the writer, the one with the words, she holds the power in her relationship with Willy and can walk away to an independent life. Dominic West is smarmy, charismatic and charming as Willy. You can believe him as the older lover and mentor to a younger woman, a controlling, aging libertine who loves the intelligence of his lovely wife but also wants to exploit her talents. Denise Gough is equally talented, showing a loving picture of Missy, Mathilde de Morny, as she leaves us with no doubt why she would want to wear men’s clothing and no doubt how much she cares for Colette. Her acting is some of the finest I have seen in a film.

If there are any flaws, it is that the film only shows us the first third of Colette’s life and we don’t get the opportunity to see more. There are also moments where the story drags from time to time as we follow Colette through the introduction to Paris and times spent repairing a country house. While some of it ties to her motivations and her exploration of her identity, there are also times when it is not needed. And while there some points in the film that don’t match up with the historical records, as a story it is truthful and relevant as women still struggle with the controlling ways of men and ways in which they struggle to be free of the expectations of both society and the males around them.

I simply put loved this movie. It shines a light on a piece of history that I was unfamiliar with which is a tragedy for a writer. It was an incredible exploration of a woman trapped in a man’s world and her ability to work herself free, changing expectations, gender roles, identity and finding her unique female voice. Any woman should want to see this just enjoy the triumph as Colette finds her way free of Willy’s control and takes her writing under her control, just as women continue to strive for equality and expression.

Rating: 5 out of 5 trousers

 


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