In 19th century Paris, as the acclaimed Claudine series of novels take the capital by storm, ghost-writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) battles against her libertine husband Willy (Dominic West) for respect and recognition in this proto-feminist tale of love, emancipation and the written word.
Equal parts revealing and fascinating, what starts as a ‘traditional’ biopic of the first French woman of letters soon branches out into a refreshingly frank exploration of 19th century feminism and sexual identity.
The film centres around her relationship with the fourteen years senior Henry Gauthier-Villars – the aforementioned ‘Willy’ – who seemingly ‘moulds’ Colette from naive country bumpkin to a fierce sexual libertine, encouraging her prodigious literary talent by locking her in her bedroom. However, when it appears that the student has become more than a match for the teacher, so begins a series of moves to remind her that he is the one in control.
As a central focus, it’s a strong one. Both actors put in an exemplary performance as the relationship veers between lovers and rivals (in one memorable sequence, both romantically and professionally).
For all his faults, it’s never hard to see the appeal of Willy – verbose, cultured and full of bravado – even as he coasts around Paris on stolen success. Dominic West ably portrays his downfall into self aggrandising bully, even managing to imbue him with a level of pathos as his muse outgrows him that keeps him from outright villainy.
Likewise, Keira Knightley never stoops to playing Colette as a victim. Strong willed, opinionated and ambitious; she is more than a match for Willy – playing at him his own game by racking up affairs with women to rival his own. Bridging a performance across a decade of a characters life is never easy, however, the transformation from ingenue to borderline cynic is seamless and nothing less than utterly convincing.
Though arguably not as feted or showy as something like The Favourite – a film whose boldness was writ large across every aspect of its execution – Colette is equally successful albeit in a more subdued way, making it one of this years’ more surprising delights.
by Will Higo