You can tell Colette was a labour of love just by the amount of detail that is paid to every scene and the care with which the film is told. So, it should come as no surprise to learn that it was a passion project for director Wash Westmorland and his late partner Richard Glatzer. They had worked on the idea for over fifteen years and it was the success of Still Alice, their previous film, that gave them the backing to tackle this story.
Gabrielle (Keira Knightly) is a young lady living in rural France. She has attracted the interest of Willy (Dominic West) who despite the lack of a dowry marries her and takes her back with him to live in Paris. Willy is among the most celebrated authors in Paris and his name is known in all the right circles. Behind the scenes it is somewhat different in that he runs a ‘factory’ of ghost writers who produce the articles and books that bear his brand. Willy presses Gabrielle into service when money becomes a problem. He encourages her to write about her school days, a topic that she has used to amuse Willy in the past. With his guidance, she produces the first Claudine novel that is an instant hit. The success leads to fame, money and problems as Gabrielle strives to have her voice heard on her own terms and not through her husband’s name.
Colette represents the best on screen performance from Keira Knightly. She is simply superb in the role. The film spans about fifteen years and she has to demonstrate just how the character develops from an innocent young lady to a forthright and mature woman. A mix of performance and costume accent this journey. When she first gets to Paris there is something about the way she holds herself and walks. It is flat and inelegant compared to those around her. She casts aside the costly dress bought for her in favour of something more familiar and less constraining. As she begins to understand how everything works within the high society you can see just how she adjusts in order to fit in and thrive. It is here that she takes on the name of Colette.
The film is a matter of false fronts. There is the word factory overseen by Willy.To the general public he is the author and the genius behind the enterprise. In fact, he is a good salesman and nothing else. In an early scene, Colette is having a dull time at a party. She complains that all the people are ghastly to which Will replies that they are in fact exaggerations of themselves. It is apparently the fashion to do this. The fakeness is further highlighted as the Claudine books start to become a phenomenon. Soon there are human copies of the character at every turn. It is the outcome that Collette has little time for, even when it is pointed out that such a feat, the creation of a type, is very rare.
The start of the twentieth century was a period of real change. Especially in places like Paris. It enabled the likes of Colette, with her broad minded thinking and attitudes toward society and sexuality, to flourish in a caring environment. The timing is ideal for her style of writing. It indicates a progression that is mirrored in the way that the world is changing in general. The film marks this with the introduction of electricity to the city, the change to modern bicycles, the first cars on the streets and the advent of the moving picture industry.
Although Willy is the villain of the piece he has a vital role to play in Colette’s development. He is the one that pushed her to write in the first place and then mentor her in the same way as any other writer. It is through him that she develops and flourishes. The film takes the time to explore this while never taking away from the fact that it was the talent of Colette that was at the core of her success. Dominic West obviously relishes the challenging role of Willy. He presents a larger than life character who thrives on the adoration of the public and the benefits that success brings. He plays the vain and selfish aspects of the character particularly well.
Colette is well worth a couple of hours of your time.