Colette is the feminist icon you’ve probably never heard of.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was a French writer and actress, who lived in Paris at the turn of the 20th Century. She was best known for Gigi, a novel she wrote published in 1944, along with her wild romances with both men and women. She divided public opinion but was ultimately nominated for the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature and given a state funeral after her death in 1954.
In Colette, however, director Wash Westmoreland chooses to focus on her early life. We see her moving throughout her twenties and challenging the traditional roles for women in Paris in the 1900s. Most importantly, we witness the process behind the semi-autobiographical Claudine novels. These novels were written by Colette, but published under her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars’ pen name 'Willy'. They became wildly popular throughout France for their titillating stories.
As the books become more famous, Colette becomes more adventurous. Initially encouraged by Willy to explore her desires, she soon outgrows him. Westmoreland captures both the highs and lows of this period of Colette’s life. Colette struggles to escape her relationship with Willy, and produces some of her best work when he locks her in a room to write. While it makes for engaging cinema, some parts are shocking to watch when you remember the film is largely biographical.
The titular character is Keira Knightley at her Oscar-winning best. She gives Colette a playful yet respectful air in her younger years as a mischievous country girl, and portrays her difficult transition to an independent woman with conviction. As Westmoreland puts it, the real Colette was “well ahead of the curve”, and Knightley successfully conveys the ambition and defiance that drove Colette throughout her life. “Keira is one of the few people who combines all the qualities that Colette would need,” said Westmoreland. With rave reviews of her performance at Sundance earlier this year, it would be surprising if she didn’t take home at least one of the big awards this season.
The supporting cast is also strong, with Dominic West playing the manipulative Willy with ease. Denise Gough shines as Colette’s lover Missy, a woman who embraced masculinity in a way that was unheard of at the time. The real Missy had “a quiet but powerful presence in Colette’s life”, which Gough embodies well. Westmoreland also makes an effort to cast actors in roles they may not otherwise have in a period piece. For example, Jake Graf, a trans man previously predominately cast in trans roles, plays the cisgender character Gaston De Caillavet. He said the role was “a joy and an honour”, and Westmoreland sees the progressive casting as natural for a film about “breaking conventional roles and opening up the world”.
While the real Colette found her passion in writing stories, her own story was impressive too. Westmoreland has created a film that successfully captures her early life, without the need for obvious embellishment or fictional twists. Colette is sure to be a hit this awards season, and deservedly so.