Colette, the new literary biopic about French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), is full of impostors. There are the pretentious Parisians who take one look at Colette (Keira Knightley), the country girl who somehow got writer and man-about-town Willy (Dominic West) to settle down, and clock her as unrefined and simple. There’s “Claudine,” the protagonist through which Colette writes about her school days in a soon-to-be bestselling novel, published under Willy’s name. There’s the actress who plays Claudine in a stage production, and then there’s the fictionalized version of herself that Colette plays for her husband at night.
The more successful the books become, the more Willy fixates on this country-girl character, bedding a string of impostors in school uniforms, each version further removed from Colette herself and paralleling the growing distance between them. Through this all, Colette emerges more distinct and inimitable than ever. By the time all of Paris has fallen in love with her avatar, Colette is already gone, impatient with creativity and vision, on to the next beautiful thing. And by the end of the film, it’s clear that Willy, the man who mentored and “saved” his young wife, is the biggest impostor of all.
Watching Wash Westmoreland’s film, the viewer is initially tricked into thinking they’ve seen it before. Colette is a nature-obsessed innocent receiving frequent visits from a worldly writer. She sits quietly at her parents’ table as her suitor gives a detailed report on the Parisian theater scene. This nervous girl is being sold off to a man she barely knows.
And then everything changes. Telling her parents she’s off for a walk, Colette runs to the barn, where her seemingly-departed suitor is waiting for her. She asks him how much time they have and they have sex, quickly. They talk about their future together—his muse, Colette, unleashed in the big city. Next thing we know, despite having no dowry to bring to a marriage, Colette is in Paris, getting ready for her society debut. She willed it so.
But Colette doesn’t stop at one dream, and is not content with the miracle of her match. Willy is first introduced as a writer and a critic, but what he really is is a “literary entrepreneur.” He keeps a stable of writers who churn out content for him under the Willy brand; it is not clear how much Willy himself writes, if he writes at all. It’s only a matter of time until Willy adds Colette to his workforce. At first, she does it out of love, writing for hours a day in the hopes of filling a notebook with stories that will please him. Later, she does it out of financial necessity, to fulfill the debts and maintain the lifestyle of her profligate partner. At one point, when Colette refuses to write, Willy locks her in a room and forces her to.
Early on, before Colette has started producing “Willy” originals, he approaches another staff writer with an idea for a novel. It would be the factory’s first, an addition to their repertoire that would allow them to cater to both highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities. This speech of Willy’s is echoed in the film itself, which rather successfully toggles between prestige historical drama and salacious soap opera, an operatic score dotted with fart jokes, keenly-observed characters and fast-paced hijinks. The protagonist of Willy’s imagined novel is a poor country seductress who bewitches a promising young writer. After their tryst, he is hopelessly enthralled, powerless, unable to write or live without her.
In Willy’s exaggerated version of their story, Colette is the muse and he is the genius. If Colette has any talent at all, it is an ability to hold his interest. Willy’s is unable to imagine himself in the secondary role where history will eventually place him, and unwilling or incapable of seeing Colette’s true potential. He dismisses the first draft of Claudine as too feminine. Blustering about, he insists that no man will ever read it, because nothing happens. Later, broker than before, he stumbles upon the notebook again and begins to realize his mistake. The subsequent joint-editing scene, in which Willy combs through the novel looking for moments that he can make more sapphic, is a parody of a man fixing something that isn’t broken, and a woman letting her partner think that he’s solved the problem.
Despite Willy’s frequent dismissals of female writers and female work, his lies and infidelities and little cruelties, it would be wrong to think of Colette as a period drama about women suffering under male constraints. From her very first refusal to wear a too-tight dress, risking high society censure, to her ultimate triumph in claiming the Claudine books as her own, Colette defies anyone and anything that would lessen her, and moves from triumph to triumph. While Willy has the benefit of a patriarchal society, and uses the conventions and laws of the day to attempt to exert control over Colette, the protagonist and the film itself both see through their male lead. Willy is pathetic, obsessed with a version of Colette that she has long since outgrown.
Their marriage eventually ends not when Colette falls out of love with Willy—that probably happened years ago—but when she stops taking pity on him. Willy takes Colette’s inevitable exit about as well as expected, screaming “you still need your headmaster” and “you’re at your most brilliant when you’re with me.” At this point, Colette has published enough bestsellers for us to understand that Willy is utterly deluded—and that the delusion that he is the real creative force, the man in control, is all that Willy has. To its credit, Colette does not work too hard to redeem or find merit in this thoroughly mediocre leading man.
Even when tasked with some unwieldy or otherwise unconvincing dialogue—Colette offering a strange, hilarious aside about her alligator teeth in the middle of seducing a woman comes to mind—Keira Knightley fully commits. With a gorgeous period piece like this, it’s easy to feel a remove, as if examining a very pretty rendering from a distance. Keira Knightley’s Colette is great to look at, but she’s also shockingly real; like no one you know, but someone you’d love to meet. She’s so well considered and perfectly embodied that she could saunter out of the screen in her tailored suit and into the 21st century.
It’s rare that women, let alone queer historical figures like Colette, are conjured so vibrantly onscreen. Director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland conceived of the film with his late partner as a deliberate intervention. As he told Variety, “There are queer people throughout history, and they have relevance, and they have agency, and this is their story.” It took 16 years for the film to come to fruition. Westmoreland’s pitch, about a bisexual writer whose partners included Mathilde de Morny (“Missy”), who dressed in men’s clothing and shared an infamous kiss with Colette on the Moulin Rouge stage, was ahead of its time. “I’d just get this completely blank stare from development people,” he recalled.
The film includes a conversation in which Colette informs Willy that Missy uses he/him pronouns, and Westmoreland has described Missy in interviews as a “forerunner of transgender identity.” As Autostraddle clarified, “Biographers are split on whether or not Mathilde de Morny should be considered transgender… Because Missy’s lovers were all women—outside of the gay husband Missy married and divorced—most historians have described Missy as a lesbian. In recent years, though, there’ve been conversations about whether or not Missy had top surgery and the fact that people also sometimes referred to Missy using the masculine honorific and also sometimes addressed Missy as Max.”
In another interview, Westmoreland told Vice, “There are trans actors in the movie, though many of the characters are historically cisgendered—and it works perfectly well. We’ve cast lesbian actresses, and recast historically white characters to be played by Asian British actors and black actors as well. It’s time that period pieces were more inclusive. It shows that society is more complex and that there’s a way to tell the period story that’s not starched white—white people, white hegemony. That there’s a way to tell these stories with an inclusive, diverse cast. Just invite everyone into that process, that’s what today is about.”
He concluded, “In Colette, it’s the hand that holds the pen that writes history. And the hands that held the pen were always the hands of a white man. That’s how history has been defined—and in re-exploring history I think it’s important to note other voices who didn’t have the same access to creating narratives.”
These narratives don’t look the way queer stories often do in mainstream media. There’s some homophobic backlash, like the angry men who throw things at Missy and Colette during their stage debut, but there’s very little tragedy. Colette and Missy don’t die for their forbidden love, and their highs range from loud and proud to quiet and quotidian. When Colette finally mouths “I love you” at a sleepy Missy on a long train ride, it’s just right—easy, understated and true. Given the lack of good queer representation, this everyday joy is just as revelatory as Colette’s multiple lesbian sex scenes. In Colette, queer love isn’t something that’s just implied behind closed doors.