Country: UK, USA
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Wash Westmoreland
Music: Thomas Adès
Cinematography: Giles Nuttgens
Johnny K. Palmer
A long-in-gestation pet project of the queer filmmaker-duo Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, COLETTE has been finally green-lit after their Julianne Moore’s Oscar vehicle STILL ALICE (2014), but sadly Glatzer was succumbed to ALS in 2015, leaving Westmoreland the sole director title in the final movie.
A biography of French novelist Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), the film perceptively pares down the time frame and is exclusively bookended by the stretch when her life is dominated by her first husband, publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars, aka. Willy (West). Willy is a purported Parisian man-of-letters, intuitively sees potential in a young Colette (Knightley), whisks her from countryside to the pre-WWI bohemian capital, and encourages her to write, yet, her in-vogue novels are published under Willy’s name, on the pretext that bluestocking literature doesn’t sell.
Colette and Willy’s marriage is a problematic union right out of the box, yet, for her, it is essential that she plays along with his games under such circumstances, there is a vague feeling that Willy’s high-handed means of locking Colette up and impelling her to write has something positive to reflect in hindsight as sometimes, a writer does need some extraneous force to overcome inertia. Also intriguingly Westmoreland makes a compelling example of how their open marriage works, when Willy cunningly condones Colette’s sapphic proclivity and exploits it for the gain in Colette’s inspiration for their “baby”, the Claudine stories, meanwhile, his macho pride cannot allow Colette’s conquest Georgie Raoul-Duval (Tomlinson) untasted by his yardstick, eloquently hits home of man’s deep-seat insecurity about woman’s unbridled sexual prowess.
Insidiously, Colette, once emboldened with confidence of her craft, gains her upper hand in their nuptial tug-of-war, and shifts her emotional investment to Mathilde de Morny aka. Missy (Gough), a noblewoman who has no qualms about flaunting her androgynous comportment, together they pitch in outré, cause célèbre-inflamed pantomime acts, and what remains between she and Willy subsumes into a businesslike arrangement, until he crassly sell off the only connection holding them together.
COLETTE has a meatily subversive blueprint in its subject’s unorthodox lifestyle, but Westmoreland lucidly opts for a less ostentatious approach to address the central matter of gender equality, critically, Willy is not habitually depicted as a complete monster, both he and Colette, are a complex individual enriched with both foibles and oscillating emotion. Kit out in a padded suit to appear rotund, but nimble-foot if he wants to be, Dominic West gives a fantastic performance counterpoising a more resigned, less vehement, but equally gallant impersonation of Colette by a mellowing Knightley.
Arranging compositional nods to many famous belle-époque paintings, the art production makes a good fist in configuring a more restrained version of Paris basking in moral decadence and spirit exuberance, albeit allowing English to usurp French for obvious and practical reasons, which means authentic Gallicism is right at the end of the rainbow, COLETTE has done a credible job in moderating a timely feminist biopic with tact and insight, a film Glatzer would be proud of.