- Movie Rating -

Collette (2018)

| November 20, 2018

If Colette earns any kind of affection from Oscar come Spring, it will no doubt be for two things, one is Kiera Knightly who gives her best performance in years, and for the film’s glorious look.  In large part, the look of the film is what stays with you, particularly the contrast between the candle-lit interiors of 19th century France and the outdoor countryside that the film’s protagonist calls home.  It’s a two-way street for young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who will become one of France’s most celebrated authors, a woman whose social and sexual liberation never seem hard-bound to either place.

Early in her life she was called Gabrielle until the day that she declared her writing her own and rebranded herself by the singular moniker Colette.  If you’ve heard of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette then you doubtlessly will know that in her time she was one of France’s most celebrated authors.  Yet, the common knowledge of Collette’s work might have passed save for “Gigi” which she wrote late in her life and was turned into a Lerner and Lowe musical that became 1958’s Oscar winner for Best Picture.

But Collette was much more than the sum of her bibliography.  She was a liberated woman who suffered several marriages, the Nazi occupation, and the overwhelming pull of her own passion for both men and women.  The movie deals almost exclusively with the early years of her life when she was married to Henry Gauthier-Villars, known under the pen name ‘Willy’.  As the film opens, she is working at her husband’s “factory”, a publishing house turning out the latest literary wannabes.  Writing her singular work as a ghost writer while Willy gets all the glory, we bathes in the fruits of her labor but not exactly in the glow of the publicity.

Much of the story deals with how she pulled herself away from the shadow of her husband’s arrangement.  How did she get along with a man who locked her in a room to write the adventures of Claudine and still remain at his side?  Well, that’s what the story is all about.  Willy, played in a spirited performance by Dominic West, was no stuffed-shirt, nor was he a cruel task master.  Pushing the talents of his wife under a bushel, he does love her but it is left to wonder what he loves more; the talent?  The artist?  The income?  Willy is such a mannered study of emotional blacks and whites that it’s hard to tell.

Willy’s questionable motives are at the heart of this story.  It is much more complicated then just a bird in a gilded cage forced to write for a cruel husband/keeper.  He’s fun to be around for Colette, a spirited rogue who has a magnetic talent as a businessman even though his business seems to always be failing.  He cheats on her, yes, but he reasons that this is just the way men are.

Colette meanwhile sees much of this in herself as the permissiveness of her marriage draws out her own budding bisexuality.  Both Collette and Willy find themselves in the arms and bedroom of a visiting American named Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson).  For Collette this is an avocation of her sexual orientation.  For Willy, it’s a challenge since his wife got to Missy bed first.

This is all done, of course, with a bouncy sort of ribald fun, but things get more serious when the liberated Collette decides to leave Willy to make her own name as an artist.  She begins a love affair with a cross dressing lover named Missy (Denise Gough) who tours with her as they take the French stage for theatrical pantomimes.  An onstage kiss between the two nearly sparks a national incident.

Collette is an interesting study of an artist finding her freedom as an artist and as a woman.  Kiera Knightly gives the best performance of her career – she’s almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination.  You can always see in her eyes that she knows who she is and the destination of her own heart.  Even when she is kept in a room by Willy and forced to writer, there is never a sense of a victim.  She knows that this will be a fight that she will win.

I have no idea of the facts presented in Collette are accurate or not.  I do know that there is much more story to tell.  The movie covers only the first half of the writer’s robust life and as the 20th century dawns, there are so many more stories to tell.  But as it is, Collette is wonderfully entertaining.  It’s not the best or most insightful biography ever made, but it satisfying none-the-less.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2018) View IMDB Filed in: Drama