TIFF Review: Colette
by Raquel Stecher
dir. Wash Westmoreland
starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Denise Gough,
Colette was a woman ahead of her time.
Wash Westmoreland’s biopic follows Colette (Keira Knightley) from the age of 18 to 34; the pivotal years when she was married to writer Henry Gauthier-Villars, also known by his nom de plume Willy (Dominic West). Colette starts her married life as a dutiful wife, helping Willy out with his business which involves hiring writers to create stories to be published under his name. Willy is a complete cad, spending the family finances on prostitutes, in gambling dens and treating others to expensive meals. When Colette tries her hand at some writing to help Willy out, the Claudine novels are born. Published under Willy’s name and not hers, these stories become the toast of Paris. As Colette begins to discover her authentic self, Willy finds himself losing control over her. We follow Colette’s trajectory from spunky country girl to fully realized woman and creator. She comes into her sexuality discovering her physical attraction to women. As Colette and Willy’s relationship falls apart, she falls for Missy (Denise Gough), a woman defying society by presenting as a man. Through her personal and professional relationship with Missy, Colette blossoms and finds the strength within herself to live courageously.
“My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there.”
The first line of Claudine are repeated throughout the film as a declaration of identity. And that is what this film, a story about discovering your true self. Colette is a superb character study exploring gender dynamics and politics within the confines of deeply entrenched double standards. The real life Colette challenged sexual norms while finding her agency. Her message of female empowerment is desperately needed today.
The idea to bringing Colette to the big screen came from Colette herself. In conversation at the Colette press conference at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Westmoreland said he and the late Richard Glatzer found Colette’s story to be “a compelling narrative of a woman creating while a man was taking credit.”
As someone who loves a good period piece, Colette was rich in period detail. The cast wore real costumes of the era and scenes were shot in historic buildings. This imbued the film with a great sense of place and time. The part Colette fits Keira Knightley, no stranger to period pieces, like a glove. At the press conference she proclaimed, “I stood very tall when I played Colette. She was a maverick.” Colette is quite bold for a period piece. Comparing it with the relatively tame period pieces of previous decades, this movie demonstrates that you can still tell a story about the past that is provocative and interesting to contemporary viewers. Westmoreland went on to say, “for a long time period pieces have gotten a reputation for being a kind of safer genre. But I think at the moment there is something happening with period pieces that are radicalizing.”
Westmoreland found many parallels to Colette’s turn-of-the-century France with modern day. It was an era when people were questioning gender roles and women were demanding more access to power. Westmoreland collaborated with screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who added the necessary female insights needed for the script. Actress Denise Gough called the casting one of the most progressive that she’d ever been involved with. Westmoreland went on to say:
“With the casting we tried an approach that I don’t believe has really been tried before of having a very inclusive cast. We have trans men playing cisgender characters. We have trans women playing cisgender women. We have an out lesbian actor playing heterosexual. We have our gay actor playing someone who said he was heterosexual, we’re not quite sure. And we have Asian British actors playing characters who were historically white. We have a black actor playing someone who in history was white. And guess what? It all works. And these have been sacred rules for so long…. Colette broke a lot of rules so we though we should too.” – Wash Westmoreland
Colette is in select theaters starting today.
I attended a press and industry screening as well as the press conference for Colette at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.