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Non-Review Review: Colette

The story at the heart of Colette is familiar, even to those with little knowledge of its inspiration.

Colette is a story about the eponymous French writer, who rose to fame on the back of a series of novels that fictionalised her own life through the lens of a character named Claudine. Keira Knightley stars in the title role, a young woman from the country who finds herself swept into Paris by her older and more established husband. Publishing under the pen name “Willy”, Henry Gauthier-Villars is something of a cad. He is quick to capitalise on his wife’s artistic voice and to claim her successes for his own. Meanwhile, Colette struggles for her creative freedom and to find a way to express herself.

Go, West!

The broad strokes of Colette are fairly routine, the film following the rhythms and structures of the modern historical biography. Reflecting the modern creative and political climate, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on Colette as a feminist narrative, the story of a young woman trying to assert control over her own voice and come to terms with her own identity. It is certainly a timely story, even if Colette follows the standard biographical film playbook beat-for-beat. Very few developments in Colette come as a surprise, and many of the film’s twists and reversals are helpfully signposted from the get-go.

However, Colette works much better than that assessment might suggest. A lot of this is down to a clever and nimble screenplay from Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Colette is aware of all the marks that it needs to hit, and that frees the screenplay up to be a little playful in how it develops its beats and what it does when it hits each mark. Colette is a fascinating hall of mirrors, a movie packed with twisted reflections and symmetries, luxuriating in the blurred boundaries between reality and fiction. Coupled with a pair of charming lead performances, this elevates Colette very well.

A picture-perfect marriage.

There is something inherently playful about Colette, buried just slightly beneath the surface of the standard artist biography template. Colette does not deconstruct or subvert the formula of such films, instead adhering rigidly to the familiar template. Colette is packed to the brim with all the familiar ingredients of these sorts of films: an increasingly loveless marriage, a female lead struggling to express herself against the expectations of her husband and society, pointed modern political and social relevance, a handy postscript that provides necessary context for the film.

There are endearing absurdities within Colette, most obviously the casting of a group of mostly British and Irish actors to play late-nineteenth-century Parisians. Neither Keira Knightley nor Dominic West bother affecting French accents for the part of French literary royalty. If anything West consciously dials up his own deep British accent as Henry Gauthier-Villars. However, things get a little stranger when Eleanor Tomlinson appears as American socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval. While Knightley and West do not put on pantomime French accents, Tomlinson affects a Louisiana accent that could at best be described as “broad.”

Hair today.

It would be tempting to write this off as an absurdity of writing an English-language biography of a prominent French literary figure, but there is some small sense that Colette is in on the joke. The film repeatedly and consciously blurs the line between fiction and reality in a way that feels almost impish. While nowhere near as adventurously contemporary in its approach to the mallieable nature of reality as something like I, Tonya or American Animals, Colette is still consciously aware of the fluid barriers that separate fact and fiction for modern audiences, suggesting Colette herself navigated those tumultuous waters.

After all, Colette fictionalises her own life to write the various Claudine books, including Claudine à l’école, Claudine à Paris, Claudine en ménage, and Claudine s’en va. These are all based on accounts of her own experiences, except with some of the names changed. There is never a sense that this disguise is particularly effective, especially when some contemporaries recognise themselves in the work. However, it isn’t just Colette’s childhood that is fictionalised, it is her authorship. The books are credited to her husband, which creates an inevitable tension.

Oh, Missy, you’re so fine…

However, as things progress, reality grows increasingly fractured. When the story moves to the stage, Gauthier-Villars casts a young actor to play the fictionalised version of his wife. Meanwhile, he pressures Colette into getting the same hairstyle as the performer, turning Colette into an imitation of an interpretation of a fictionalised version of herself, credited to her husband. It is not long before the boundaries blur even further, with Gauthier-Villars insisting that his wife dresses as her own carbon copy in the bedroom and even seducing young fans of a book that he never wrote.

In some ways, the conventional structure of Colette makes room for all of these strange and engrossing details along the edge of the narrative, and allows for some broader exploration of themes of gender and sexuality. As Colette struggles to escape the shadow of a creation that isn’t even credited to her, and as she wrestles with the fact that her fictionalised self is no longer (if ever) under her control, she is afforded the freedom to explore aspects of herself that would otherwise be off-limits, including a sordid romance with a female suitor, a relationship with a non-conforming member of royalty, and a career as a mime.

The write stuff.

Colette is never particularly showy or fussy, but is constructed well enough that all of these elements fit together. The film’s central thematic arc is reflected in a number of recurring motifs, such as the use of mime. Early in the film, a sequence featuring a performer miming along to a rendition of Down by the Sally Gardens invites the audience to consider the relationship between Colette and her husband; her husband miming along to her words. Later on, in a neat dramatic reversal, mime becomes a means of escape for Colette, allowing her to articulate ideas and concepts that she could never speak aloud.

This deft approach allows Colette to get away with certain narrative choices that might otherwise seem clumsy or heavy-handed. The film is not exactly shy about its contemporary relevance. The Claudine brand is portrayed in the style of a modern multimedia franchise; branded soap, sweets, dresses. The theatrical adaptation is presented as equivalent to selling the movie rights. “The theatre going public will make you rich, Willy,” Gauthier-Villars is advised. Colette is very much about modern celebrity, even set more than a century in the past.

A paned expression.

Even seemingly innocuous dialogue choices nod cheekily towards contemporary culture. Gauthier-Villars remarks that Colette has “set Paris atwitter”, when “aflutter” might make more sense in that context. He is similarly dismissive of Colette’s “potty mimetic lovers”, which while a technically accurate description of the situation evokes the modern word “memetic.” None of this is too obvious or heavy-handed, but there is a clear sense that Colette is very overtly and very consciously positioning itself as a movie that speaks very much to the modern moment, despite its setting.

This would easily grate if Colette did not have so firm a grasp of its fundamentals. The plot and rhythms of Colette are very traditional and very straightforward, very predictable and very familiar. There are precious few surprises to be enjoyed within the story as a hole. However, this relatively safe approach allows for those more playful beats within the established framework. Colette similarly benefits from relatively strong and well-cast central performances. Knightley is very effective as a young woman straining to make herself heard, while West is very well-cast as a pompous and self-aggrandising hack. They play well together.

Suits you, sir.

Narratively, Colette is fairly boilerplate stuff. However, it is just nimble enough and just playful enough within that familiar template to keep things interesting.

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2 Responses

  1. Really wish they add this to amazon prime or some online service. Great review.

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