Keira Knightly manages to be believable and sympathetic as the French writer Colette in a biopic directed by Wash Westmoreland and covering the portion of Colette’s life before she breaks away from being the ghost writer of her controlling husband and finally publishes under her own name. The screenplay by Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz is very much about the subjugation of a woman and the need for her to achieve dignity in the face of a male-dominated society. It also is dramatically about sex and Colette’s venture into lesbianism.
At first it is a bit strange to fathom the English actress Knightly in a French role, but she soon wins one into accepting her as a result of her skill. Colette (1873-1954) is followed from her early days into the marriage with the dynamic Parisian writer and publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), known by his pen name “Willy.” He is a man about town with an eye for the ladies. Colette longs to write and she comes up with the character of Claudine, a country girl with spunk and sparkle, really a version of herself as she would like to be.
Recognizing a good thing and convincing Colette that a book under a woman’s name will never work, her husband publishes it under his name, and the book and sequels are successful. While Colette is at first a willing participant in the arrangement, feelings of revolt set in, complicated by her husband’s philandering and the way he treats her as an inferior.
Meanwhile, she finds herself attracted to women. She falls especially for Mathilde de Morny, the Marqusie de Belbeauf (Denis Gough), who scandalously dresses as a man and is known as ‘Missy.” The two appear in a theatrical act together and when they kiss on stage they cause a sensation.
The Parisian atmosphere is depicted with panache in terms of settings and costumes, and we get a background portrait of the era. Dramatically, the trajectory is the massive buildup to the point at which Colette throws off her marital and literary shackles, and we finally see in a bookstore window a work under her own name.
The film cuts off at that point, long before Colette goes on to her fame as the author of “Gigi” and achievement as one of France’s most famous women authors. A Bleecker Street release. Reviewed September 21, 2018.