Best-selling novelist, scandal of the French stage and ahead-of-the-curve gender bending socialite, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was the toast of Belle Epoque France.
To a century of readers, in French and any other language you could think of, she was simply “Colette.”
She earns the Full Keira Knightley Period Piece treatment in “Colette,” a handsomely mounted film about the changing place of women in world culture as seen through the life of an icon who made that change come about.
Director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”) brings us a stately stroll through the Paris salons at the end of the 19th century, the theater, opera, pantomimes and parties that screamed “decadence” as the pace of life accelerated with the age. And he takes us to the sylvan countryside, to Burgundy (Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, Yonne) where smart Gabrielle (Gabrielle) is wooed and her parents flattered by the wealthy, charming and famous rogue, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known to the reading world of the day as “Willy.”
Willy (Dominic West) is a a city sophisticate, dismissing the latest opera (“La Tosca,” by Victorien Sardou) with a “bad theater is like dentistry” quip to her parents (Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh).
Gabrielle is shy, withdrawn in his larger-than-life presence. But in private, there is lust and love. Here is a man who appreciates her wit, her sensibilities and the poetic turns of phrase she manages, even in her love letters.
“I can read you like the first line on an optician’s chart,” she quips, and he swoons.
Dowry (she has none) be damned, they marry and “Life is ours for the taking!” His “shallow and pretentious” society friends may dismiss her taste in comfortable, simpler fashions and joke about Willy’s “wild days” being behind him. But Gabrielle declares “the wild days have just begun.”
And so they have. Living well, they are constantly short of cash. Willy likes to pick up the dinner check, buy the house a round, gamble and it turns out, keep a mistress here and there.
This is almost more than his new bride can bear. But West makes Willy an infectiously fun and driven rogue. He’s a writer, actually more of a pseudonymous “entrepreneur,” pitching an idea, contracting out his stories and snarky book and theater reviews to lesser mortals, taking the credit as “Willy.”
He’s like a movie producer — “an idea man” — who leaves the detail, artistry and talent to others.
Gabrielle finds herself sucked into “the factory,” where Willy browbeats her into turning her charming tales of growing up into a novel. He cajoles and flatters her until she’s done, and then picks apart the work’s commercial failings.
But when the creditors and repossession men come to the door, he’s desperate enough to pitch “Claudine at School,” a light, carefully observed fictionalization of Gabrielle’s school days. It becomes a sensation, a veritable cottage industry, and Willy becomes the toast of Paris.
Maybe this is a “Women are from Venus/Men are from Mars” take on this “secret” arrangement which everyone of the day seemed to know about, but here this cruel credit-stealing seems more benign than it did in say, “Big Eyes.”
Credit that to West and the script, which make Willy’s devotion to his wife match his need/use for her. The times might very well dictate that “female authors don’t sell,” but this one does, under Willy’s name. His coaching and encouraging — “It’s the hand that holds the pen that writes history!” — and editing makes her who she becomes. It’s just that he never realized it was the editor who was supposed to be anonymous.
But as the years pass and the grind of cranking out more “Claudines” grates, Gabrielle morphs into simply Colette, a woman with her own identity, her own ambitions, her own ego and her own extra-marital carnal desires.
“It was the wife I found interesting.”
Willy may express tolerance, but ever the opportunist, he finds a way to inject himself into her lesbian affairs as well. It’s just a matter of time before Colette asserts herself, professionally, financially, artistically and sexually, and breaks through the patriarchy that lets men have all the fun, the money and the credit.
Knightley is her usual blend of spunk and serenity playing this woman who, with age and experience, starts to demand her due in life, love and the public eye. She has chemistry with the actresses playing Colette’s paramours (Eleanor Tomlinson, Denise Gough), but her scenes with West crackle with the whirlwind of life he and his character bring to them.
Yes, she could be headed down the carpet during awards season, but his is one of the great supporting performances of the year. She nobly holds center stage as the focus of the movie, but he makes it fun.
Westmoreland’s opulent production plays a bit like a “Hit the highlights” version of the life of the woman who wrote “Gigi” and was nominated for the Nobel Prize. It lopes along through Colette’s life, her emergence as an icon (via Claudine), her avante garde theater years, her growing comfort with her sexuality. As such it tends to drag and all these obvious efforts to show the changing times (electric lights are marveled over, “cinema rights” to the books are discussed) weigh the tale down.
But Knightley and West create spectacular friction in these roles, two people who loved, collaborated and rubbed each other the wrong way and the right way, and from that, a great artist was created, shaped and immortalized — with a little help from her lawyers.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality/nudity
Cast: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough,
Credits:Directed by Wash Westmoreland, script by Richard Glatzer, Wash Westermoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz. A Bleecker St. release.
Running time: 1:51