“Colette,” starring Keira Knightley, is a mediocre film about a great woman. It tells the story of Colette, a successful French author who wrote hits such as “Gigi.” She is married to a man named Willy, a sensationalist writer. She begins to ghostwrite a book series for him about herself, called “Claudine.” While doing so, she slowly rebels against Willy. First, she takes up a series of lovers, falling in love with one named Missy; she leaves him at the end of the movie.
This is not a very compelling movie. The problem may lie in how the viewer doesn’t understand why Colette would stay with Willy for one minute. She doesn’t need him — she’s talented enough on her own. She sees that he cheats on her from the first week of their marriage, and everyone in society gossips about how much of a philanderer he is. Early in the movie she tells him she’s upset with him over his infidelity, but she goes back to him, and it feels inauthentic. Perhaps if the movie had focused more on the genesis of their relationship — how she was a simple country girl who he plucked from obscurity and brought into Parisian society — this could have made more sense. But the bulk of the movie — her slow rebellion against him — doesn’t carry any weight. The faults in the foundation of the movie make the rest of the film deeply unconvincing.
Also, this is perhaps a small detail, but it’s incredibly distracting that the film takes place in France and the film is about a French author writing books in French, but the actors are all British. Alright, fine, that’s just a kind of strange pan-European thing that often occurs in English-language movies about European countries. But then all of the writings, which is a huge part of the movie, are in French. Pourquoi? Pick a language.
It’s also perplexing that I had never heard of Colette. No one I spoke with had heard of her either. Have you? She wrote “Gigi,” which is a very famous book, but it isn’t even mentioned in the movie. In a postscript, she is called “the most famous woman author in French literature.” Perhaps that’s true. After six years of studying French and reading the literature, I can’t name a single female author before the still-living Maryse Condé. That’s a sad comment about French literature but a missed opportunity that is left unexplored in the movie.
The costumes constitute the best part of the film. Not only are they visually appealing but they help tell the story. In the beginning, we see a young, innocent Colette wearing a not-quite-period-appropriate dress but something vaguely old-fashioned. She has long hair worn in two schoolgirl braids. As she gains independence, her appearance changes. First, she chops her hair, per her husband’s request, so she may look more like the Algerian actress playing Claudine. Her husband doesn’t realize that he’s propelling her down the course of a more masculine dressing. Her wardrobe mirrors her changing ideas, ideas of androgyny and fluidity, both in sexuality and gender. By the end, she borrows Missy’s tuxedos and looks drop dead handsome.
Other parts that sparkle are when the movie addresses ideas on sexuality and gender. It turns out that Colette likes women more than she likes men. This first becomes clear in a scene where she converses with a couple, and, in a jealous rage, her husband forces her to leave the party. She chides him for his jealousy and says that it’s misplaced: she was interested in the woman. Later, she takes up an affair with a redhead dame from Louisiana-—whose accent is god-awful. In an interesting move, she asks her husband for permission to go out with her. Later she comments to her husband that fidelity is dependent on gender. He doesn’t consider women to be actual competition for his wife. This first affair makes her happy for the first time in the movie. Her husband sees that and seeks to destroy it. He too begins to sleep with the socialite. In a dizzying montage, we see scenes of the revolving door of the socialite’s bedroom, bringing each member of the couple into her bed, unbeknownst to each other, until Colette finds out. But both Colette and Willy treat the socialite as a happy diversion, in the same way Willy does with the prostitutes he sees.
It’s not until Colette meets Missy that there’s finally real depth in an relationship in the movie. This proves to be the most compelling part of the film. Missy is a Marquise, a high noblewoman. But in her first scene, it’s hard to tell who the “she” is they’re talking about — she looks like a man. We get a hint of what’s to come when someone tells Colette she looks androgynous (the real Colette does; Keira Knightley absolutely does not). Colette clearly wants to become Missy. Colette and Missy strike up an affair. In a strange foursome, Colette, Willy, Missy, and a young girl Meg dressed as Claudine go away together. It’s reminiscent of the Lilia and Osip Brik/Mayakovsky triad from a Russian art group of the same time period. Somehow everyone knows what’s going on and is sort of okay with it. It’s a proto-polyamorous love.
Probably the best moment in the movie is when Colette talks lovingly about Missy with the “he” pronoun, and Willy speaks disparagingly, calling Missy “her.” It’s subtle, but shows how Colette claims power in her sexuality. It’s also surprising and impressive to see such comments about gender and sexuality being made in a movie set in roughly 1910. It reminded me a lot of Orlando by Virginia Woolf, a figure of this time, that also was decades ahead of its time in the total fluidity of gender and sexuality of the titular character, who, also incidentally, is upper class but flouts those customs.
I was reminded a lot of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” particularly the third volume, “Sodom and Gomorrah” (the title perhaps gives away much of the content). “Colette” is set in Paris, as is parts of “The Search,” and the film even has a scene in the Bois de Boulogne, which figures heavily in the Proust. The figures in both this book and “Colette” are members of the bourgeoisie. One of the first scenes of the movie is a party where the petty bourgeois people spend extravagant amounts of money on frivolous goodies to try to entertain themselves, quite similarly to Proust. But their high social position also allows them to play with standards of gender and sex more easily. As Missy says in the movie: It’s not easy, but it’s much easier when you have lots of money.
This is not a great movie. Instead of going to see this, I would suggest watching Keira Knightley in “Begin Again,” an eminently sweet movie where Knightley also wears great androgynous clothes. Or watch “Gigi,” which is a fantastic film, and it has songs.
Claire Kalikman | firstname.lastname@example.org .