Even for an era of such artistic and cultural ferment as the turn of the last century, famed French author Colette led an extraordinary life. She was a country girl dominated by a sophisticated husband who became the toast of Paris for her wildly successful, trendsetting novels.
She was also a music hall performer who scandalized the public, a sexual adventuress who loved men and women, a cross-dresser, and an accidental advocate for equality who had to fight for the right to publish her work under her own name.
Her melodramatic life was always tempered by her wit and wry self-knowledge in her books, reviews, and voluminous letters to friends and family. In his biographical feature, Colette, filmmaker Wash Westmoreland sticks to her early years in Paris, during the metamorphosis by which she would eventually turn herself into the celebrated author.
|Reel life: Knightley, West|
As portrayed by Keira Knightly, this Colette is all good-humored innocence and coltish bravado. The film ends just as she's about to launch herself back into the world on her own terms, so we never get a sense of the wry wisdom of the author's maturity, but Knightley is appealing as an awakening personality in the making.
The movie begins in 1892, in the remote French country village of Saint-Sauveur. 19-year-old Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley), her beloved mother, Sido (Fiona Shaw), and her father, are entertaining Willy (Dominic West), a renowned magazine writer and critic from Paris, whose father knew Colette's father in the military. Within a year, Willy and Colette are married and living in Paris.
There she discovers that "Willy" is a cottage industry; he employs other writers to crank out the work that appears in the press under his name. To stave off creditors, her husband decides "Willy" should write a novel, and assigns the task to Colette. When he physically locks her in her study to work, she starts writing about her own schooldays.
|Willy, Colette: out of the shadows|
No feature-length movie could do more than scratch the surface of the real-life Colette's long, rich, and productive life (she died in 1954 at age 81), or include her expansive circle of friends, artists, writers, mentors and devotees. But the movie looks beautiful (largely shot in old-world Budapest), and Knightly captures enough of Colette's rebel spirit of adventure to encourage viewers to explore the rest of her fascinating story.
I’m such a sucker for this era of wild experimentation before WWI. Matisse and Picasso were reinventing the world, the Arts and Crafts Movement was redesigning furniture, and women were cutting there hair, agitating for the right to vote, exploring their inner lives, and remaking themselves outside of their husband’s shadows.
There are so many luscious period details in Westmoreland’s movie, you can’t take them in all at once. Just look a the chair back and draperies in this shot of Knightley’s Colette at work at her desk — yow!
Every detail is perfect.
Meanwhile, here’s a companion photo of the real-life Colette at work on the Claudine novels.
At this point, she is still in the prim collar and upswept hair of her early years with Willy. She still had a way to go before morphing into the scandalous, yet acclaimed author beloved for such popular novels as Cherie, and — much later in life — Gigi.
But you can see by her determined chin and serious demeanor that she’s on her way!