FilmSpace: Colette

Film critic Scott Wilson looks at one of January’s non-awards contenders, despite it being better than most films nominated.

Colette – ★★★★☆

We are in a time of reframing narratives and reclaiming voices. With films like Hidden Figures – about the women who put men into space – filling in the gaps of history, it is as if every story we know has had something missing, something pushed out by the loudest voice in history: men.

In Colette, the power of a man is influential and swift. Keira Knightley’s Gabrielle Colette marries Dominic West’s Henry Gauthier-Villars, who goes by the name of Willy. He introduces her to the Parisian art world, where she has always imagined she would feel at home, long-awaiting the place that would enable her creative voice.

Her husband is encouraging, but firm. She must use this voice and write stories, but they will be published under the Willy brand. He locks her in rooms until she produces work and then takes all the glory for her Claudette series, which catches on among the people Colette always longed to be a part of.

For the film to work, for the audience not to see Willy as an outright villain, there has to be an understanding as to why they are together. Despite his abuse and stealing of her deserving acclaim, there is chemistry, for a time. The real Colette said she would never have written if it were not for Willy. While he is exploiting her, he is enthusiastic about her talent, and understanding of her extra-marital affairs with Missy, a woman known for her non-gender conforming appearance.

It goes against the conservatism of many period dramas, instead acknowledging that such sordid sexual behaviour has always been happening, we are only now able to talk about it.

With this complex relationship is a film for our times which understands why people stay in awful situations. Colette’s feelings towards Willy are never black and white until the relationship runs its course. She knows that with him she has access to opportunities she never would have otherwise, something which brings fulfilment to her life. Even with his treatment of her, their declining interest in one another, the fame he has robbed her of, there is still a mutual benefit in staying together.

The film’s tolerance of affairs brings to mind Professor Marston and The Wonder Women. While the progressivism on display there is wholly more healthy, both films show history through a lens we perceive to be modern, accepting of lifestyles we assume have only recently become normalised. While Colette has Missy, Willy also has a thing with a younger woman, hinting at an even more troubling side to his character. It goes against the conservatism of many period dramas, instead acknowledging that such sordid sexual behaviour has always been happening, we are only now able to talk about it.

The influence of Colette’s mother cannot be understated either. For a story taking place over a century ago, it is tempting to approach such a film with preconceived notions of each character’s role. Many a historical drama would see a matriarchal figure pressuring her daughter to find a man and persevere with his horrifying behaviour, for that is the way of things. But here, though only appearing in a couple of scenes, Colette’s mother has a quiet confidence, loving her daughter more than society’s conventions. That in itself is radical, that between generations of women in a family, she was encouraged to pursue something personal and forego whatever relationships might bring.

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With a screenplay by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Richard Glatzer, and director Wash Westmoreland, this is Westmoreland’s first feature since Glatzer, his husband and co-directing collaborator, died of ALS in 2015. Their previous feature Still Alice was a tender look at a painful subject, unflinching when many would look away. Colette doesn’t require the same harrowing honesty, but it continues the work of bringing to the fore something that people may not know.

Colette is known as the author of Gigi, but she deserved to have been prolific from a young age. The story of a man taking credit for a woman’s work is the story of history, and here we have a director capable of making that story palatable, empathetic, and layered. Westmoreland also understands Colette’s dynamic with Missy, taken by her gender non-conformity, openly thrilled to be in her company, empowered to take her life where it must eventually go.

At just under two hours, it is quite long enough, but no feature could ever encapsulate every fascinating detail of the story. It is a compliment to say it makes one want to research Colette after the film is over, such is the nature of a life truly lived. Despite some glossed over information, and a few details that could have been fleshed out more, Colette is a strong film not among the awards season crop that appears every January, but just might be better than most of them.

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