Director: Wash Westmoreland
Screenwriters: Wash Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca D. Lenkiewicz, based on a story by Richard Glatzer
Runtime: 111 mins.
Australian release date: 20 December 2018
Previewed at: Sony Pictures Theatrette, Sydney, on 15 November 2018.
Based on a true story written by the late Richard Glatzer and directed by Wash Westmoreland, Colette casts a light on the fascinating early part of the life of one of France’s best loved novelists, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley). In 1892, just before she turned 20, the bright and attractive young woman is living with her parents (Robert Pugh and Fiona Shaw) in the French village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, enjoying an illicit liaison with the older French writer and publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars, commonly known as ‘Willy’ (Dominic West), when her lover surprises her by asking for her hand in marriage. Married the following year, the happy couple relocate to Paris where Colette is introduced to Willy's bohemian intellectual and artistic circle, a salon that pushes the moral boundaries of Parisian society, and in which Willy has a well-earned reputation as a libertine.
Over the next few years, Willy’s publishing house starts to suffer financially and he begins to run out of ghost writers (he was known to put his own name to the works of others), so he convinces Colette to pen a semi-autobiographical novel about a brazen country lass, called Claudine at School. The novel is a hit, especially with girls and young women, and Claudine grows into a highly successful, and scandalous, series of four books. Willy and Colette are the toast of Paris once again, allowing him to carry on with his many affairs and encourage her in her Sapphic tendencies. The libidinous life which the couple enjoys begins to crack under the strain of the books' success, because Willy has published them in his own name and refuses to give Colette even co-credit for the works. The bad blood between them, plus the absence of the royalties owed to her, leads to Colette pursuing a career in music halls where she often acts out scenes as Claudine, and occasionally appears on stage with her lover Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, aka ‘Missy’ (Denise Gough).
This part of her life is beautifully reconstructed in an authentic depiction of the fin-de-siècle period, with the film ending in 1905, and for this thanks must go to costume designer Andrea Flesch and supervising artistic director Katja Soltes. (It was much later in life that Colette would have a distinguished career as an author in her own right and win the Nobel Prize for Literature - she would live until 1954). Famed British composer and pianist Thomas Adès has turned his hand to film composition for Colette and has done really beautiful work with the score. Knightley and West are excellently matched as the couple who were unafraid to expose themselves to the mores of Parisian culture and their tumultuous relationship encouraged Colette to defy gender and sexual stereotyping. In doing so, she ultimately revolutionised French literature and the societal strictures of the day. She is rightly considered to be one of the greatest 20th century French authors, particularly in writing for females, and is read by many women to this day, especially those fighting for a woman’s right to equality in male dominated society. Times may have changed to some degree, but the battle goes on.