Colette Review: Keira Knightley in France’s Most Scandalous Age

Colette is a Keira Knightley period piece that does its very French subject matter proud by embracing a laissez-faire vivaciousness.

In Gigi, the decidedly French novella by the mononymous author Colette, many variations of practical wisdom are shared—at least so far as when one retired courtesan attempts to train her great-niece in the chosen arts. It is an exact such scene wherein Aunt Alicia intones, “Love, my dear Gigi, is a thing of beauty, like a work of art. And like a work of art, it is created by artists.” These words might appear to be euphemisms in that story, but such a vision of romance is paramount to Colette, the unexpectedly beguiling biopic about the author’s life. With a laissez-faire vivaciousness, the film tracks the unconventional marriage of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette and her husband who for more than a decade took credit for her literary genius. But even such professional slights can have their courtesies.

It is through this prism that Colette turns period piece conventions on their head and offers a clever reworking of the form, as well as a superior turn for one of its greatest modern stars, Keira Knightley. As a lead who is no stranger to roles requiring corsets and historical dress, Knightley along with a mostly English cast discover a surprising amount of continental charm that hews refreshingly close to a Parisian sensibility, and one that does its Belle Époque era proud.

The film opens in 1893 at the moment of transition in France from the chaotic 19th century to the cultured air of reclaimed sophistication that is worn today like a fine glove. And one of the makers of that glove in this period is Collette, who also is transitioning in the film from girl to woman, or at least child to wife. She lives in a provincial home, which the older Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West)—who has some minor renown in Paris for his nom de plume, Willy—continues to visit. But perhaps more than just a worldly leer, Willy is so transfixed by Gabrielle that he whisks her away and makes her his bride.

Their marriage falls under the familiar constrictions of that era, and this type of movie, with Willy’s wandering eye and patriarchal transgressions. However, as not a complete hypocrite, he encourages Gabrielle to wander too, at least as long as it’s with other women (he draws the line of her taking other men into her bed). And even as their romance waxes and wanes as often as the moon, their union births a tremendous business partnership. At Willy’s urging, Gabrielle changes her name to simply Colette and begins writing… not that it matters on the page as Willy takes credit for every book she writes, all of them about a girl called Claudine.

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Fictionalized accounts of first her schoolgirl days in the country and then scandalous roman à clefs about her and Willy’s open-minded nocturnal habits in Parisian society, the Claudine books become the toast of Paris, and the character a beloved child to her author and glorified editor. Yet as the century turns, Colette begins to consider if such a child can survive a divorce…

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Directing with an elegance that lifts its eyebrow at just suggestive enough of an angle, Wash Westmoreland follows up his Oscar winning Still Alice with a decidedly more playful exercise. But like that film, Colette goes far based on the sterling work of its lead performances.

Knightley is again no stranger to period pieces, yet whereas so many others have demurred away from mischievousness, perhaps in fear of being mistaken for frivolity, Colette gives the star the space to explore other facets of her most well-known screen persona while also honoring the remarkable woman the film is about. Knightley’s Collete is a headstrong woman who always knows what she wants, even as that changes in more free-thinking and ultimately liberating directions. She is not Willy’s victim, though she is treated as his overworked and underappreciated employee, and she savors her vanities, whether they be her cherished hair or eventually her artistic independence, including a stage debut as an actress at the Moulin Rouge.

Knightley relishes the unbowed ingenuity of her heroine, who looks even more comfortable soon dressing in male garb and suits as she does in so many frilly, Edwardian dresses. One also senses she enjoys sharing such a film as a two-hander between herself and West, with their romance being an almost entirely professional one. Willy is unquestionably a bastard, which Colette picks up on real shortly after the honeymoon stage is over, but for at least much of the film, she embraces that and the pair carry themselves like a couple of genial grifters breaking into high society than they do mere adversaries over Claudine’s authorship. As such, the film allows West to go bigger and broader than I’ve ever seen him, quite literally with his bushy beard and padded love-handles suit, nor do I recall a moment where he is quite so entertaining as when he sings of Claudine’s merits as only an oblivious drunk could do in one of the many scenes that should’ve tipped the fact that he is no sentimentalist about the girlhood experience.

Narratively the film has some resemblance to Tim Burton’s Big Eyes, which was another movie about a husband who coopted the artistic accomplishments of his wife, but while that picture was fairly perfunctory in its depiction of marital copyright abuse, Colette keeps a hand on its feminist drive without ever feeling quite so insistent of its moral. To be sure, Colette does come to the realization that she should own Claudine, and she is given a spectacularly awards reel-friendly speech to prove it, but Knightley and the film embrace the dissolution as a natural evolution of a woman’s growth, as opposed to a plot-mandated epiphany.

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Still, the film’s glossy reliance on time-jumps and montages prevents Colette from being fully as biting as it should be. The picture has a sardonic perspective, but for all its witticism, it does not quite go in for the barbed final word. The gliding cameras make for a delicious waltz around juxtaposing images of Colette and Willy romancing the same American socialite, but the fallout of Colette’s anger at realizing her husband is also visiting Claudine’s muse is left merely for the page. The film is so dazzled by Knightley’s smoky stare as an Egyptian queen on a can-can stage (her first theatrical creation), that it doesn’t quite kick as high as it should in its own right.

Nevertheless, Colette is still filled with a glamorous spirit that is impossible to resist. More than its lovely costumes and production values, the movie channels Paris’ most romanticized vintage by honoring the idol of that age with a winning series of performances and vignettes. It’s the intersection of the graceful and the scandalous, the champagne and the bubbles that make it sparkle.

Colette opens Sept. 21 and screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.

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4 out of 5