September 13, 2018 at 11:21 am PST | by John Paul King
A lesbian turn of the century affair out, loud and proud

Denise Gough and Keira Knightley star in ‘Colette.’ (Photo courtesy Bleecker Street)

The name “Colette” may not mean much to a modern generation of Americans for whom reading is largely a thing done by their grandparents in the days before the internet.  Once upon a time in France, however, it was the name of a rock star – or at least the closest thing they had to one at the turn of the 20th century.

Born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in a small village of rural France, she began her rise to fame with a series of semi-autobiographical novels – published under her husband’s name – about a young country girl named “Claudine,” which became a sensation among the young, smart set of Paris.  It was a time when female writers were largely dismissed as secondary talents, but her success was undeniable; eventually, she divorced, started writing under her own name, and became lauded as one of French literature’s brightest lights.

She was also openly and unapologetically bisexual, a woman ahead of her time in terms of personal and professional liberation – a fact which is at the center of a new film biography, directed by out gay filmmaker Wash Westmoreland from a screenplay he co-wrote with his late husband, Richard Glatzer, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz.

Focusing mainly on the author’s early life and career, “Colette” begins with the marriage of its title character (Keira Knightley) to established Parisian writer Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), who has “branded” himself under the nom-de-plume “Willy” and commissions works from his hired stable of authors to be published under his own name.  At his encouragement, his new bride soon becomes one of them; sophisticated, sensual, and scandalous, her book is a hit.  The couple – and the sexual adventures of their open marriage, as fictionalized in the continuing series of novels he pressures her to write – becomes the talk of Paris; but after years of living under her husband’s shadow, Colette begins to hunger for the recognition she deserves.

Literate, insightful, and charming, the script aspires to deliver more than just a biopic; while offering details about its subject, it also paints her as both a feminist and a pioneer of queer visibility – an activist for both causes simply by her unwillingness to live inside the accepted conventions of her time. 

Westmoreland and Glatzer first conceived and wrote “Colette” way back in 2001, around the time of their breakthrough feature, “The Fluffer.”  At the time, presumably, nobody wanted to finance an expensive, LGBT-themed period piece by a former porn director and his TV-reality-show-writer boyfriend, so the pair had to put the project on hold until they had established themselves with films such as the Sundance-winning “Quinceañera” and the Alzheimer’s drama, “Still Alice,” for which Julianne Moore won a Best Actress Oscar.

Nearly two decades later, the completed film has benefitted from their patience; sumptuous costumes, meticulous sets, authentic locations and gorgeous cinematography (by Giles Nuttgens) all combine for as authentic a recreation of Belle Époque France as one could wish.  From the dazzling natural beauty of the fields and forests near Colette’s family home to the richly-appointed literary salons of Paris’ artistic elite, the movie presents us with a sort of period travelogue that is also a feast for the eyes.

Likewise, the prestige achieved by Westmoreland as a filmmaker has allowed for the casting of top-notch talent.  Knightley is exquisite as Colette; her growth from an worldly teenager girl to independent woman is charted with confidence and sensitivity, avoiding the expected tropes of most coming-of-age melodramas and instead illuminating the evolution of an extraordinary personality.  As Willy, West provides the charisma and larger-than-life bravado necessary to make him a worthy match for such an exceptional partner, while also bringing enough humanity to keep him likable.  For all its production values, “Colette” would fall flat without outstanding performances in these two roles, and these co-stars deliver them with seemingly effortless grace.

The supporting ensemble is equally important, and for the most part they rise to the task.  Noteworthy are Fiona Shaw as Colette’s mother, here as warm and wise as she is cold and callous as Abby Borden (in “Lizzie,” her other standout film this season), and Denise Gough as the Marquise de Belbeuf, a gender-bending aristocrat who becomes Colette’s lover.  The one sour note comes from Elinor Tomlinson as Georgie Raoul-Duval, who gives this American socialite a cartoonishly over-the-top Southern accent that undermines the sensuality she would – and should – otherwise possess.

“Colette” is something of a rarity in today’s film market; these lavish historical biographies, once a staple of Hollywood’s studio fare, have become few and far between; it’s telling, in fact, that this one is an independent film.  It’s obvious that Westmoreland wants to do justice to the format – and more, to claim a place within it for the queer and feminist issues that, after all, did not simply spring into being within the last fifty years.

He has succeeded, to a point; the movie is lush and elaborate, every bit the prestigious costume epic.  Ironically, though, it’s exactly this that detracts from its purpose.  While it highlights the issues of being a woman – and of being queer – in a heteronormative patriarchal culture, it still manages to feel so traditional that we can easily forget we are watching a film about a boundary-pushing icon who delighted in turning societal norms upside down.  Westmoreland has made a very “proper” film, perhaps in spite of himself; what could have been a gloriously irreverent celebration of transgressive expression comes off instead as almost stodgy.

Still, there is much about “Colette” in which to delight; it’s a magnificent production, with intelligent writing and award-worthy performances, and it’s well worth spending a weekend date night to experience – even if it doesn’t quite live up to the iconoclastic spirit of the remarkable woman at its core.

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