Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was really something else, a country girl who became the first French woman of letters to be given a state funeral. Remember how Gigi made Audrey Hepburn a star? That film was based on Colette’s book and she picked Hepburn for the role personally. The daughter of a war veteran whisked off by a ne’er-do-well to Paris, she lived through and embodied some tremendous times. The creator of a virtual industry denied ownership of it by her husband. First the young wife of a gambler and adulterer, she would go on to have her own younger lovers in time. Living the values of the new 20th century, when the Nazis took Paris she stayed and lived through their occupation. You could make a great many fascinating tales out of her life, some advice that should have been passed onto the makers of this movie.
Colette is about the early years of the author’s life; Keira Knightley plays her as she grows into her own autonomy and finds her own voice. There will be a lot that speaks to modern audiences, Colette lives in a world of male privilege and contradiction. Her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West) is fond of saying he has expenses and responsibilities but she knows that he gambles, drinks and whores a great deal of ‘their’ money away. Surrounded by libertine ideals, Colette is encouraged to have lesbian affairs but not to share a kiss on stage with her lover. Fashion may allow her to wear pants but not retain the rights to what she created. This is the story of how Colette navigates such a world and is shaped by her first marriage. The film and Colette herself allow that Willy (Henry’s pen name) may have had something to do with making those first books possible even if he is not their true author. He’s a sad character, bombastic and manipulative but also evidently full of the zest for life which originally enchanted Colette.
This is a mature work that allows people to be flawed but have redeeming qualities. That life can be shaped by small moments, that big decisions can be years in the making and that fools can make us laugh but also break our hearts. The film Colette understands all this and more but does not know how to entertain. The longer it goes on the more difficult it is to sympathise with anybody on screen including Colette who may be building up her courage but only to make a decision we as the audience know is coming. Her lover Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), instead of an inspiring figure of rebellious spirit, comes across as a whispering intruder and otherwise blank slate. Willy at this point becomes even more tiresome as his lesser natures finally bring him undone. The only person one may actually care about is Colette’s mother played by Fiona Shaw in a performance that is measured and perfectly calibrated to elicit some warmth and wisdom.
It feels like the filmmakers wanted to be understated in every way, the cinematography and production values are effective but not showy, the music isn’t intrusive and big dramatic close ups of the actors giving speeches are few and far between. Keira Knightley, who became a star 16 years ago in Bend It Like Beckham has sought out some of the most interesting projects to make in the time since. For every blockbuster like Pirates of the Caribbean there has been a Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, not to mention movies like The Duchess or Atonement. She was never anything but engaging in all of them, even if some of those films and/or performances could’ve been stronger. Here she is so reserved she fails to make an impact, her performance like the film itself is admirable but fails to gain and hold your attention.