“Keira Knightley, in a period piece” feels a bit obvious at this point, but also? Knightley is fucking great in period pieces.
She was an integral part of the trio that grounded A Dangerous Mind, stealing scenes from Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen. Maybe I was the only human who liked Joe Wright’s version of Anna Karenina, but I thought she had great chemistry with Aaron Taylor-Johnson and his mustache in that film.
And her mixture of jaunty brassiness and chin-forward practicality is the key to Colette, her return to the genre after forays into yet another Pirates of the Caribbean film and the intolerable Collateral Beauty, and before she returns to the Disney machine with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. (Have you seen the trailer for that movie? IT LOOKS INSANE.)
OK, anyway. Colette serves as a biography of the French writer of the same name, whom we meet in 1892 as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a girl with long braids, a ferocious mother (“I’m worried he won’t understand her,” she complains of her daughter’s potential suitor), and a secretive personality; she’s already seeing the man who is wooing her, French author and publisher Willy (Dominic West, really effectively smarming it up), for sexual rendezvous without telling her parents. With no dowry, Colette has nothing material to offer him—but he marries her anyway, bringing her to Paris with him, where he runs a publishing house.
The setup is this: Willy hires writers, has them write stories under his name (the sexier and more salacious, the better), and then pays them from the publishing proceeds. If a story becomes wildly popular, Willy gets all the fame, and so when he introduces himself as “a literary entrepreneur,” what he really means is that he’ll work you to the bone and steal your ideas and pretend that he came up with them himself.
Willy is always chasing the next big hit, and yet as quickly as money comes in, money goes out. And Colette is there, watching in their home, listening to his editors’ notes, and penning his letters, already using her quick wit and her way with words to his benefit. And it kind of goes without saying that Willy, who one of his French friends describes to Colette the first time she meets her as “the slipperiest of eels,” isn’t exactly living as a husband should. He’s having an affair; he’s spending their money on silly things; and when Colette confronts him about his infidelity and irresponsibility, his explanation is typical macho bullshit: “You have to understand this is what men do. We’re the weaker sex!” (Jimmy McNulty, this is what the fuck you did.)
With a promise that he’ll let her be more involved in the writing and publishing, Colette returns to Willy—this time with an idea for her own book. The protagonist is a young woman named Claudine whose adolescent years leaned toward the sapphic and gauzy and who eventually has a tumultuous relationship with a man named Renaud. It’s fairly obvious that Claudine is in fact Colette, but with the book ostensibly being written by Willy, he becomes the toast of Paris, while Colette must keep her true authorship a secret.
How long can this go on? Willy has excuse after excuse: people don’t buy books written by women; they wouldn’t want to associate Claudine’s activities, which lean sometimes toward lesbianism, with an actual female author; and his connections and reputation are more beneficial to sales than Colette’s. And, in a way, Colette does love him; their relationship has too much history to easily end. But as the personal and the professional become even more messily entwined, their marriage suffers—not only with infidelity on both sides, but because of creative desires that increasingly diverge.
Does this sound like The Wife to you? Yes, there are broad similarities between that Glenn Close/Jonathan Pryce film and this one with Knightley and West; there is a familiar “lecherous average dude with a long-suffering talented wife” thing going on here. But while Close spent the majority of The Wife offering up brief reactions of frustration or resentment that eventually exploded, Knightley throws barbs as Colette from the beginning and only grows more provocative and unyielding as the film progresses. She meets West’s Willy tit for tat, from the first party they attend in Paris, where she pities a tortoise with jewels glued to its shell that is being used as a whimsical decoration (“I liked the tortoise, I thought he was as bored as I was”); to her “I understand it well enough to write a book that’s the toast of Paris” when he questions her creative knowledge and artistic skill; to her smirk when Willy wonders “Isn’t there something missing?” of her relationship with the descended-from-Russian-nobility Missy (Denise Gough). (Director Wash Westmoreland cuts to a sex scene between the two women right after that line of dialogue, which is an expected-but-still-effective move.)
Colette tracks the various ebbs and flows of the author’s creative inspirations over decades, as she transitions eventually to writing plays and performing onstage, and it’s Knightley’s performance that drives this narrative forward. You never forget it’s Knightley, because her tells as an actress are too strong—that thrust-forward jaw, the combative vibe of her body language—but they work here for a woman who was mostly unappreciated and underestimated in her time, whose boldness in dressing like a man and openly loving women was simultaneously vilified and eroticized.
“You think that by saying ‘I’m a man, that’s what men do,’ you clear it all away,” she spits at her husband; “Too much of my life has been arranged” she says to Missy when the woman offers to financially support her; “I will continue to pursue this because I want to” she retorts to a reporter who is shocked by an onstage performance in which she and Missy kiss. Her fierce independence made Colette a figure ahead of her time, and Knightley is in her element here in a film that feels particularly poignant in our current nightmare reality.
Image sources (in order of posting): Bleecker Street, Bleecker Street