Wash Westmoreland’s Colette is a delightfully subversive take on the typical period piece that thoroughly, albeit perhaps unexpectedly, engages its viewers. It is a film that skillfully flips its genre’s stereotypes on their heads—it is fiery, bold, and honest. In addition to a powerful score and witty writing, it is propelled by its strong cast and chemistry between characters. Although perhaps it bites off more than it can chew in under two hours, it nevertheless makes for a captivating and well-executed biopic.
Colette begins softly by setting the stage and introducing us to its titular character, at this time going by the name Gabrielle (Keira Knightley). She lives in a small town with her parents and is being courted by the charismatic Willy (Dominic West). We learn they are in love and despite Gabrielle’s lack of dowry, they plan to wed. Time jumps are Colette’s best friend, and over the next chapter of the film we learn about their life through several short year skips. We find Gabrielle and Willy married and living in Paris and learn their marriage is perhaps not as strong as it may seem. There are underlying tensions between their difference in socio-economic status, their money problems due to Willy’s struggling newspaper business, and Willy’s infidelity. They are struggling to stay afloat and manage their main source of income, Willy’s newspaper. Gabrielle offers her writing, and begins to chronicle stories of her childhood, depicting it through the eyes of her young fictional protagonist named Claudine.
This, as it turns out, is a goldmine—Claudine is published, citing Willy as its author, and the two lovers begin to make their way in the world. Gabrielle, now going by the name Colette, at first doesn’t mind her husband taking the praise for Claudine’s writing, as she is simply enjoying her newfound fame and influence. At the same time, she begins to take interest in something else entirely: women. Colette explores her sexuality, with the permission of her husband, and begins a torrid relationship with a socialite named Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson). She explores her newfound intimacy with women, yet she is unaware that her husband, overcome with jealousy, has also begun sleeping with Georgie behind her back. This affair culminates with Colette’s discovery, and she channels it all into her writing.
The film continues through much of Colette’s young adult life, and truly demonstrates the talent and range of its leads. As much as Colette thrives given its wellspring of an inspiration, unfortunately it also suffers because of it. Telling anyone’s full life story with the constraints of a theatrical friendly product is difficult enough as is, let alone telling the story of someone like Colette––who is not only one of the most famous French writers, but an incredibly compelling individual with a fascinating life story. Such a sprawling story creates a challenge, and thus the most interesting aspects of her life tend to be watered down or shortened due to a simple lack of time. The most compelling and significant relationship outside of Colette’s marriage is her relationship to Missy (Denise Gough), a transgender man with whom Colette falls in love. However, this relationship is not introduced, nor developed, until the film is relatively far along. Had this relationship been more central, it could’ve been explored more thoroughly.
Ultimately, that encapsulates the shortcomings of the film. It is a daunting task to try to fully capture such a vivid and complicated life as Colette’s, and as a result the product is entertaining but not particularly fulfilling. There are so many themes that could have been fully explored but weren’t. We are told that Colette is rocking the boat, defying gender norms and heteronormativity, yet these aspects of her life are often skimmed over or used simply as fuel for drama in her relationship with Willy. At every possible moment, Willy is the focus of this telling of Colette’s life. Every action she takes is shown to affect him, and we rarely see her potential outside of his extremely controlling influence—that is, until Colette’s haunting monologue that signals the end of their marriage close to the conclusion of the film. Perhaps that is part of the message, that Colette is shackled to her husband, but it seems to take the main focus of the film and draw it away from Colette and always onto her marriage.
Colette is a film that screams feminism, yet focuses on the men; a film that clamors to defy gender norms, yet fails to fully develop the strongest and most era challenging relationship it has. It is, without a doubt, an incredibly enjoyable film, yet struggles to fulfill itself thematically and ultimately lacks just that little extra something to make it perfect. That being said, Knightley steals the show, and it is without a doubt a film worth watching. It is everything a period piece and biopic should be, and other filmmakers should take note.