'Colette' fails in its biopic purpose for 'Claudine' writer

by Isabelle Blank | 10/23/18 2:05am

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” – Colette

In the present moment of the Time’s Up movement, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court and Donald Trump’s presidency at-large, the age-old narrative of man silencing woman is especially resonant. The life of Colette, an award-winning 20th century novelist and critic most famous for her book “Gigi,” should offer plenty of complex material apt for contemporary anxieties. The movie “Colette,” unfortunately, does not deliver such nuanced message, though the material is ripe for the picking. Though director Wash Westmoreland seeks to explore Colette’s early development as a novelist under the control of her first husband, Willy, the film ultimately simplifies Colette’s history to an empty effect.

Kiera Knightley plays the young Sidonie-Cabrielle Colette, whom viewers first meet living at home with her parents in the bucolic French countryside. Polite and subdued, Colette is courted by the charming libertine Henry Gauthier-Villars, a writer known by his pen-name “Willy.” Clad in a ruffled butter-yellow dress edged in black piping, Colette traipses through the garden and surrounding countryside to meet Willy in secret. This is a mode in which viewers are accustomed to seeing Knightley: a beautiful girl in historical costume seeking secret love. Though the rest of the movie seeks to establish Colette as a woman who defies the historcal limits of her gender in an erotic display of liberation, Knightly just doesn’t live up to the image of the historical Colette. Her performance proves too restrained and the script too aestheticized to live up to the woman who wrote a novel based on an affair she had with her own stepson.

Following Colette’s marriage to Willy, the couple moves to Paris. After Willy discovers his young wife’s writing talent, he soon employs Colette to be a ghostwriter in his literary factory. Although Colette’s first novel, “Claudine at School,” is in part based on Colette’s own schoolgirl days in the French countryside, Willy takes all the credit. “Claudine at School” becomes an instant hit, and Willy forces Colette to write more novels in the series so that he may reap both the financial and social benefits. After discovering Willy’s repeated infidelities, a disillusioned Colette fights for sexual freedom and seeks Willy’s permission to pursue women. Willy and Colette begin an open marriage. The movie subsequently tracks Colette’s affairs with a saccharine Southern heiress and the selfless Missy, a cross-dressing (and perhaps transgender, though this is never clarified) member of European nobility. Oscillating in dress and persona between a feminine coquette and a swaggering male bachelor, Colette anticipates Judith Butler’s gender performativity theories by 70-odd years. Willy takes a female companion who arrives in his office wearing Claudine’s school-girl frock and calls herself “the real Claudine.” Ultimately, Colette’s and Willy’s marriage dissolves in a legal battle over the copyright and true authorship of the “Claudine” novels, and Colette goes on to travel and act in her own theatrical performance with her lover Missy. The movie concludes with Colette looking triumphantly into the camera with greased eyes, ready to take on the stage and reclaim her own life, set free at last from her suffocating husband.

If the movie’s plot glazes over much of the historical texture of Colette’s life and personhood to deliver a message of generalized female empowerment and hope, its aesthetic symbolism is similarly contrived. In one early scene, Colette and Willy attend a party where a female singer provides a cantomime with vocals, quite literally giving voice to a male performer. In another, Colette scratches “Willy” into a window-pane of her claustrophobic office, so that the name of her husband hovers ghost-like over her face as she bends down to write. Willy’s swelling belly throughout the film is a not-so-subtle nod to his insatiable appetite for sexual trysts, fame and money. Though the film plays with the aesthetics of gender performativity, Knightley’s Colette ultimately conforms to the coquettish bohemian-artist trope. Colette’s film-characterization flattens the magnitude of the defiant individualist Colette’s willingness to make a place for herself outside the margins of heteronormative sexuality, eroticism and gender identity.

The costumes, it must be noted, are lovely. The costume designer Andrea Flesch handles the sartorial evolution of Colette with dexterity. Knightley seamlessly transitions from wearing awkward, overly-ruffled floral dresses to diaphanous white Belle-Epoque dresses in cotton voile trimmed in black. In a bedroom scene, Willy makes Colette don the stage-costume of Claudine: a drab schoolgirl dress with a thick white collar. Later in the film, Flesch dresses Knightley in menswear-inspired ensembles: ruffled blouses tucked into grey culottes or black ball skirts, topped with black boleros and fascinators. Near the end of the film, Knightley emerges in a men’s three-piece suit, infuriating Willy and marking the beginning of the end of their marriage and business partnership. In a movie centered around personal transformation and erotic aesthetics, clothes hold no small power. Flesch wields her power well.

All in all, “Colette” proves an engaging and beautiful movie, but its sterilization of the historical material makes for a hollow portrayal of a remarkable woman who led such a rich life. Colette was a Nobel-prize-nominated author whose literary prowess sprung from an abject assertion of her own sexuality, femininity and personhood. Westmoreland’s and Knightley’s portrayal of the historical figure ultimately does not do “the real [Colette]” justice.