Wash Westmoreland’s "Colette" gives voice to the story of esteemed French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Kiera Knightley) and her relationship with the difficult and gaudy Parisian rake Henry Gauthier Villars, or ‘Willy’ (Dominic West). Colette is probably most well-known today for her 1944 novel "Gigi", which was made into a film in 1958 starring Leslie Caron. "Colette" details the decades before this, and chronicles the author's tumultuous first marriage with Willy, who was 14 years her senior. Set partly in the Burgundy countryside and partly in fin de siècle Paris, the film manages to capture the mood shift from the long, sombre nineteenth century to the modernity of the twentieth century.
Colette, "the girl with the hair", comes from a formerly wealthy family and is the daughter of a war hero. To the young woman, Willy is a charming and intriguing example of Parisian life at the turn of the century, which was brimming with developments in theatre and art. Colette is first brought to Paris by Willy, and as she walks into her first salon in a tawdry, out-of-date, stained gown, she is greeted by a pretentious, artificial crowd and a bedazzled tortoise. It is the tortoise she finds the most compelling, and understandably so, for it too has been wrenched out of its natural habitat and made a show out of. Colette has a soft spot for animals and nature, which serves to highlight her natural compassion that so few others in her acquaintance seem to share.
Kiera Knightley dazzles with understated charm. It is a fine performance and perfectly adds to her repertoire of fabulously acted period dramas. Colette’s first female lover, elegant Louisianan socialite, Georgie Raul-Duval, is played superbly by Eleanor Tomlinson (although perhaps at times her beautiful costumes are more impressive than her personality). The film does well to reflect characters in costume choices, designed by Andrea Flesch. While innovative, they still retain the authenticity of 1890s exuberant and colourful fashion. Colette’s outfits are a touch androgynous; and the masculine and feminine elements in her attire shift and change as she does.
Willy is keen on his wife’s transgressive behaviour, believing he can capitalise on scandal. He encourages her lesbian alliances, just so long as they are under his control. Despite this, the expression of LGBT identities in the film is not cultivated through voyeurism, but through tenderness and honesty. Missy (Denise Gough), for example, is the voice of feminist reason for Colette. Cool, collected, self-assured, and subtly funny, Missy counteracts the garish decadence of Willy, but manages, through subdued impertinence and snark, to be twice as revolutionary and charming. An onstage kiss between the couple is passionate and intense.
Quietly revolutionary in so many aspects - from Colette’s visible armpit hair, to the casting of transgender and non-white actors in white cisgender roles, to Colette’s insistence that her husband should use male pronouns when referring to her transgender lover - "Colette" is a blueprint for representations of women and LGBT people on-screen. The telling of the story, despite its age, is refreshing. Everyone is allowed to be human. The film does not suffer from our expectations of the era; instead, the marginalised voices of the past are nurtured with new compassion and humour.
Perhaps the film is lacking liberatory zeal at times as Willy’s voice is overpowering. Dominic West plays him with veracity and confidence, but he begins to grate after a while. This is a film less about Colette, and more about the marriage, with all its complexities, contradictions and difficulties. Nevertheless, Colette unaccompanied at times would suffice, as she is sometimes overshadowed by his presence. Rich, soft, delicate, colourful and honest, "Colette" makes for pleasurable viewing.
Edited by Eloïse Wright, Head Film Editor