Review Colette Gone Elsewhere

There are many movies about writers–I suppose they are catnip to screenwriters–and they’re tricky, because the act of writing is not cinematic. Usually we’ll get a few shots of someone either typing, or using a quill pen, depending on the time period. We do get that in Colette, the story of the French woman writer. She stares at a blank page, then writers with a fountain pen in pretty great handwriting.

But writers whose life stories make it to the movies are the ones that live interesting lives, and for the woman who would become Colette that’s understating it. She was young during La Belle Epoque, performing at the Moulin Rouge (where she kissed another woman and incited a riot) and had affairs with both sexes. Somehow she managed to write over fifty novels, but her first four were not credited to her at first.

Keira Knightley, who specializes in costume dramas, plays Colette, who was a country girl whisked off to Paris by an ebullient if not arrogant intellectual (Dominic West). West was known by the name of “Willy,” and in an early form of publishing that is fairly common now (think of James Patterson or Tom Clancy), he has a team of writers churning out things with his name on it. He’s a brand, rather than a writer.

West likes to live the good life, but has trouble making money. He suggests that Knightley turn one of her stories from school into a novel. She creates an alter-ego named Claudine, and the book is a sensation. Initially there is no second thought of her allowing her husband to take the credit. It’s only when Claudine becomes a craze–girls dress like her, and cut their hair like her, and the book is turned into a play–that Knightley starts to resent it all. She also discovers her sexuality, which is a solid bisexual (she would marry men three times, but also had a very long relationship with a woman).

Colette was something of an early feminist and even more than a trend-setter, she was culturally ahead of her time. In addition to writing, she acted for many years (her riotous debut at the Moulin Rouge did not discourage her). She openly wore men’s clothes in an age where that could get you drummed out of society or beat up. When West, needing money, sells the copyright to the Claudine books, she accuses him of murdering their child.

Colette is a beautiful film, with exquisite photography and costumes (by Giles Nuttgens and Andrea Flesch, respectively). In fact, costumes play a large part in the film. Early in the film, when Knightley is first taken to a salon for a party, a woman back-handedly insults her by suggesting she got her dress in the sticks. In this world (as I suppose almost every world is) clothes represent who we are, or who we want to be. The Claudine outfit that all the girls are wearing is key to the film, as well as the fact that Colette didn’t wear a corset, something a bit shocking for those days.

I think the film succeeds because of the characterization not only of Colette, but of Willy as well. It would have been easy to present him as a cardboard villain, but West and the writers (director Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer) give him depth. Sometimes he’s a great guy, and Colette loves him. But he can also be pretty beastly. I suppose that makes him like every other man in world history. He shows her kindness and support at times, but when she wants her name on the book he frreaks out. He also can’t keep it in his pants. At times West steals the movie–it comes close to requiring a title change to Willy.