As much as we romanticize Belle Époque Paris, the City of Light was not so enlightened when it came to women’s rights at the turn of the 20th century. Their fortunes nearly always depended on marriage, or else being “kept” by wealthy men (and the former by no means guaranteed that one’s husband wouldn’t also sponsor one or more grisettes on the side); they were forbidden from wearing pants and could be arrested for being seen in public dressed in men’s clothes; and as pseudonymous literary sensation “George Sand” demonstrated, they were discouraged from writing and publishing, under their own names at least.
And yet, that was the Paris into which Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was whisked upon marrying the popular author and critic who went by the name of Willy. Though the young country girl had no ambition to become a novelist, her husband pushed her into that pursuit, and subsequently denied her the credit her work deserved, releasing her wildly successful Claudine stories under his byline. “Colette,” which at last delivers the role for which Keira Knightley will be remembered, is not the first English-language feature to go behind the famous French byline (Danny Huston directed the much-derided “Becoming Colette” a quarter-century earlier), but it succeeds in tying her story to the zeitgeist, while delving deeper into the love affairs she pursued with other women.
As cups of tea go, specifically insofar as anticipating whether or not they might be to your taste, the recent film “Colette” most resembles is “The Danish Girl.” Both qualify as well-meaning melodramatic treatments of once-controversial figures whose causes are considerably enhanced by hindsight, and further embellished by eye-catching sets and costumes. And both are damn good stories, provided you don’t know all that much about the subjects going in.
Literary biopics are typically content to court the well-read, older audiences, but director Wash Westmoreland (who developed this film with his late husband Richard Glatzer) clearly hopes that Colette’s story will appeal to and inspire young women, in much the same way her most popular character, Claudine, did at the time. Though the genre so often runs the risk of tedium, that’s not the case here, thanks in large part to its leading lady: Despite the fact she’s frequently cast in period pieces, Knightley possesses an enticingly modern quality in both her stride and the brazen, independent-minded way she engages with men on-screen — especially her husband (played with the bombastic charm of a true roué by Dominic West, every bit Knightley’s equal, even if his character is far beneath hers).
Where women of the time might duck their eyes, Knightley meets the camera’s gaze head-on. She seems unafraid to challenge the status quo, which of course, was the very quality that has made Colette’s story so enticing over the years: Here was an outsider to Parisian polite society (raised in Saint-Sauveur, the provincial town where the film begins) who never embraced the etiquette of the salons, choosing instead to seek out her own company, however scandalous it might look — not that Colette or her husband seemed to mind some good scandal.
Certainly, Willy was determined to tart up Colette’s early manuscripts, quipping, “We need more spice, less literature” — which surely explains why her Svengali-like husband is shown delivering his first critique of Colette’s work while relieving himself in the apartment chamber pot. Westmoreland clearly delights in incorporating such historical details, from the invention of electric lights to heated debate over the Eiffel Tower — now perceived as Paris’ most charming landmark, but un scandal to classicists who felt the iron structure ruined the city’s skyline.
Like Christoph Waltz’s character in Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” — another artist who passed his wife’s work off as his own — Willy makes an easy villain, though the social climate at the time was as much to blame in “Colette.” Granted, he could be cruel, treating her more like a slave than a partner, as in a scene where he locks Colette in a room and forces her to write, but both West and Westmoreland seem determined to capture the complexity of their relationship, especially where their love life was concerned. (This element gains an added level of poignancy when one considers that “Colette” was written by gay-married partners, whose collaborative spirit corrects for the imbalance in the division of labor and credit between Willy and Colette.)
Backed in part by “Carol” producer Christine Vachon and Killer Films, “Colette” doesn’t shy away from its protagonist’s same-sex attractions; neither does it play her various love affairs for cheap exploitation. There are two women Colette finds she simply can’t resist: American-in-Paris Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) and cross-dressing noblewoman Mathilde de Morny, or Missy (Denise Gough), with whom she shared Paris’ first documented same-sex kiss on stage.
To Colette’s credit (in the film at least), she seeks her husband’s permission before pursuing either mistress — a courtesy Willy doesn’t necessarily extend in return, even going behind her back to bed Georgie as well. Theirs was clearly a complicated marriage, as scandalous today as it would have been at the time. And yet, Colette is shown to cherish honesty above all else in her marriage, nearly leaving Willy each time she catches him in a lie — as when the slipper cad claims to be broke, but is revealed to be sponsoring une femme entretenue (a lover whose rent and allowance are provided for) on the side.
It doesn’t help that the chief strain on their relationship appears to have been financial, as Willy spent money faster than he could earn it, depending on a “factory” of writers to keep him afloat. The way his system worked, Willy would commission work from an extensive team of authors, then slap his name on it. Thus, all could benefit by what celebrity Willy had managed to cultivate in public. (It hardly seems fair, but isn’t so different from the way a prolific composer like Hans Zimmer operates today, employing a stable of young musicians and passing their contributions off as his own.)
Speaking of music, one of the film’s strongest assets is its score, the first written expressly for the screen by British opera composer Thomas Adès, and the source of so much of what audiences perceive as Colette’s sparkling intellect. The entire movie seems brighter by dint of Adès’ nimble piano and alert string work, propelling us forward through so many elegantly photographed, Merchant-Ivory like scenes in which stuffy snobs stand around in expensive waistcoats. In his capacity as a theater critic, Willy warns early of the dangers of bad theater, which he likens to painful dentistry. It’s as if Westmoreland is issuing his own challenge, effectively dodging the pitfalls of period-set parlor dramas by demonstrating how Colette’s strides toward equality were among the first in the ongoing march for women. As the French put it, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” At least “Colette” stands for change.