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Saturday 19 January 2019

Colette, Film 2018, co-written and directed by Wash Westmoreland, starring Keira Knightley, 8* out of 10

With Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette this biopic costume-drama fin-de-siècle France has a most interesting and astonishingly modern subject. While the chance for a more edgy treatment was missed, this is still a well made and highly entertaining film. Keira Knightley shines in the title role.  

Burgundy, France, late 19th century. Strong-willed country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) meets the 14 years older Henri-Gauthier Villars (Dominic West), a successful publisher and self-publicist with a posse of ghost-writers spreading his literary fame in find de siècle Paris. Henri and Gabrielle fall in love, get married and she moves to Paris. Far from being intimated by the French metropolis, its freedoms and opportunities for the comfortably-off, Colette, as she will become to be known, begins to take Paris by charm, in the shadow of her illustrious husband and eventually by storm in her own right. In a deceptively equal partnership with her brilliant PR man and lovable cad of a husband, she manages to turn her literary and other artistic talents into a means to leading the life she wants to lead.  Colette breaks many taboos but somehow succeeds in turning her transgressions of bourgeois norms into desirable trends and fashions. 

Colette’s life is a tour de force of sexual liberation and self-realization that swings all ways (and always). Driven by her strong-willed intelligence and a flawed but perfectly matched “partner-in-crime” and companion, who at some point will become unable to keep up with her let alone control her, she leads the transition to a libertarian Zeitgeist with good cheer and integrity.

Colette the film does what British period biopics (even f they are about France) do so well: give an aesthetically pleasing impression of place and time with great sets, beautiful costumes and pleasing colourful pictures. In this case, pictures of the bourgeois intellectual and just a little bit decadent life of fin-de siècle Paris, and the Burgundy countryside. 

A well-written screenplay tells the story in a straightforward manner, a story which strikes a 21st-century audience with themes that chime with our own times in terms of the concepts of a woman questioning men’s privileges on behalf of her sex. Colette did so with verve, intelligence and a good-natured humorous attitude often lacking today. She did so enlisting support from talented friends and lovers she chose with great skill and good fortune. 

Another parallel to contemplate is the ruthless marketing, merchandising and branding of Colette the author (initially falsely presented as Gauthier-Villars under his pen-name Willy) and her literary creation “Claudine”, both of whom are made to go viral, in an anticipation of social media based techniques. 

All this makes this film very interesting and entertaining viewing.  Keira Knightley beautifully portrays a multifaceted and deep character like Colette through the different stages of a long and productive life, a strong performance by Dominic West as her caddish, yet loving and supportive husband. As usual, when British actors are at work, there are very pleasing performances in supporting roles too, notably Fiona Shaw, as Sido, Collette’s mother, and Sloan Thompson as Colette's lesbian lover, friend and long-time partner Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belboeuf.

Personally, I would have liked an edgier form of telling the story than the straightforward costume drama. On the positive side, the strong screenplay by Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz presented “Frenchness” in English without giving way to the temptation of satirizing it from an English viewpoint. 

All in all, Colette the movie is interesting, entertaining and rewarding film, skilfully made.

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