LFF ’18 – ‘Colette’ is a Striking Historical Tale of Scandal and Subversion

From the producers of Carol (2015), and director Wash Westmoreland, comes a stunning period piece documenting the astonishing true story of France’s greatest female novelist, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Masterfully fronted by the queen of historical drama, Keira Knightley, the film spans over fifteen years in the making of the mind behind the infamous Claudine series, and the battle Colette fought for ownership of her creation.

Beginning in Saint-Sauveur in 1902, a young Gabrielle Colette is swept off her feet by the charming and much older Willy (Dominic West), an established author and successful publisher living in Paris. When ideas run dry and money stops coming in, Willy convinces Colette to rewrite her captivating childhood stories into a novel that will be published under his name. Though her husband doubts the worth of the ‘feminine’ prose, Colette’s first Claudine novel flies off the shelves, and into the hands of just about every woman in Paris. As she continues the series, Willy encourages Colette to immerse herself in the bohemian Parisian lifestyle, and she soon discovers her taste for women, reflected in the increasingly scandalous content of her writing. At first content to write for their shared profit, over the following years Colette tires of watching her husband enjoy the public success of her work.

The screenplay – a collaboration between Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and the late Richard Glatzer – remarkably condenses an epic story and the nuanced maturation of Colette’s character into a smart, frequently funny, film. Colette’s development from naïve country girl to headstrong, forward-thinking woman is brilliantly portrayed by Knightley. She is whip-smart and, most importantly, unashamedly recognises her own value. Dominic West is so easy to hate as egomaniac Willy, whose short-sighted desperation for fame and fortune renders him laughably self-absorbed. A welcome reprieve from the farcical central relationship comes in the form of Missy (Denise Gough), a gender-bending noblewoman who helps Colette embrace her own androgyny and becomes a much-needed confidante and supporter of Colette’s career.

Colette ticks all the boxes of a conventional period biopic, but the subversive subject matter makes it feel wonderfully fresh. It also feels greatly important as a work of queer retrospection that is unafraid to depict a woman’s unapologetic sexual exploits with both a lewd sense of humour and unwavering empathy. The story manages to remain light in tone even in its moments of conflict, which makes for an easy, yet engaging and thoroughly enjoyable viewing. Though it may not pack the heftiest emotional punch, Colette is a delightful watch and a fascinating story that I look forward to revisiting.

by Megan Wilson

Megan Wilson is a northerner currently studying film at King’s College London, and recently completed a semester at the University of Michigan. She is passionate about cats, old musicals, and turtleneck sweaters, but is not in fact an 80-year-old man. Her favourite films include CarolMoonlightSingin’ in the Rain, and Matilda. Find her on Twitter: @bertmacklln

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