Film Review: “Colette”

a surprising modern story

There are a lot of positive aspects coming out of the current feminist movement. For starters, women are finally getting their voice heard, especially in the government. Second, women are not only voicing their want for equality, but demanding it. Across the board, it is the time of the woman. This movement has affected every aspect of our modern lives and also resulted in the allowance for more stories about women to be made. Today, women are the centerpiece, as opposed to having a majority of female characters be supporting players to their male counterparts. We now get to see complex and multi-dimensional women on screen and in literature. As a society, it seems that we are making tremendous steps towards equality. But, have we?

Wash Westmoreland’s film Colette is a biopic that focuses on the formable years of the famous French writer’s life. We watch Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly) marry Henry ‘Willy’ Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) and move from the French countryside to the fast growing metropolitan of high society Paris in the 1890s. It is here where Colette begins her career and writes her first novel Claudine at Schoolwhich becomes one of the most popular books in Paris. Everyone who is anyone in France has read the novel. It’s astonishing, revolutionizing, and becomes a major pop-culture phenomenon. But, on the cover of the book, it states that the author is Willy, not Colette.

Colette (Keira Knightly) and Willy (Dominic West)

Westmoreland may be focusing on a specific point in the French writer’s life (who later wrote The Vagabond and Gigi to name a few) which centers around her marriage to Willy but the main conflict is Willy taking credit for her first four novels. At first, Willy didn’t like Colette’s stories, he called them too feminine and said no one would want to read a novel about a woman (a saying still common in today’s world). But on the verge of bankruptcy, he publishes the novel and history happens. Claudine at Schoolflies off the shelf and becomes the novel of the decade, being particularly popular with young women. In result to the abundance of success Willy then does what any rich man of the 19th century does, controls or attempts to control Colette. He goes to the lengths of locking her in a room until she writes another novel and makes her cut her hair and dress like Claudine so she embodies the character herself. He becomes the puppeteer of the Claudine franchise by controlling Colette’s every move while marketing everything from soap to cigarettes in Claudine’s name. Willy and Colette soon become the power couple of France that everyone wants to be. But Colette is hard-headed and refuses to be on a leash her entire life.

Colette is a story ultimately about a woman discovering her voice and then finding a way to claim it. We meet Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, confident country-girl and watch her as she grows and evolves into the ferocious, strong woman that is brought to life by Keira Knightley. Knightley, at home in the period genre, is completely at ease in Colette’s shoes. She easily transitions from country-girl Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette to Paris Colette, showing the slow and gradual transformation in those 10 years. She delivers her monologues with passion, range, and sophistication while remaining vulnerable as well. The film is completely Colette’s story and Knightley knows it. She’s aware that all eyes are on her and that it is adamant that the audience falls in love with Colette because if they don’t, the film is pointless.

Dominic West provides a strong scene partner for Knightley. He’s as masculine as a 19th century French businessman can get and has enough charm to light up a room. But he is a man of his time. He has frequent affairs, controls Colette, and has no respect for her. He sees her as a part of his property, as if she’s his dog or one of his workers that just happens to share a bed with him. West does the best he can with Willy, but screenwriters Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer provide little room to humanize him. Willy has the all the advantages of the male power and uses them, but Colette is the one with the talent. Yes, he pushes her to write more, even if it against her will and it is because of Willy that Colette becomes the writer and woman that she becomes. But unfortunately, he’s a one-dimensional character that only exists as a catalyst for Colette to gain enough strength to leave him. Willy is unlikable, crude, and unsympathetic; the perfect view of the male enemy. Maybe the character was painted this way because this is film is called Colette and not Willy, or maybe because Willy was just as horrible as he appears to be in the film. But only extensive research will provide the true answer.

What makes Colette fascinating is that this is a 120-year-old story yet it is so familiar. When one views this film, one forgets that this film actually takes place in the 1890s. It is only when the characters are transporting letters or talking about the invention of a light bulb does one remember. Colette is a surprisingly modern period piece. It is a film about one of the greatest French writers of all time, but it is also about a woman struggling to be heard. A theme that has been extremely prevalent in our society for the last three years today. For some reason, Colette’s story about fighting to be seen, heard, and given credit for what is hers is painfully similar to many women’s struggle today. All across the world, women are still fighting for what is truthfully theirs. Wither it be equal pay or protesting in front of the Senate, normal, everyday women are still at war for their right to be heard and to take what is rightfully theirs. They’re fighting the exact same fight Colette fought in the 1890s which makes me think: have we actually come as far as we think we have?

In general,Colette has a lot going on. It’s a period piece, a queer love story, a coming-of-age film, and a feminist film. It’s a lot. Sometimes, it’s has too much which results in the audience’s loss of attention. But with its flaws, you can’t look away due to Colette’s painfully familiar yet inspiring story. As an audience member, you can’t help but feel proud of Colette as she claims her voice and makes it on her own. She provides inspiration, reflection, and in some ways gratitude because, she did it. She broke away from a controlling man, broke the rules of gender behavior, and became successful all on her own. As Colette says, “the hand that holds the pen writes history”, which will make any female audience member smile and realized that time is up.

I love storytelling. I love writing. Here I am. Also very much for hire