During the press conference for Colette at the Toronto International Film Festival, actress Keira Knightley discussed some of the specifics of getting in the mindset of a deeply enigmatic, powerhouse woman such as writer, performer, and all around badass Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Knightley mentioned that one of the subtle but impactful things she did was to decide not to wear a corset, which would have been standard protocol for women of that time period. This buck of tradition allowed the character room for different movement than the rest of the women on screen and is just one small example of the many minute details that create a complete mood in this film.
Director Wash Westmoreland, along with his late partner and writer for the film, has sketched a portrait of a woman that spans nearly two decades of her life on screen. Keira Knightley paints herself into the portrait and then proceeds to color outside the lines to create something even more stunning. From the smirk on her face when Colette peeks around the corner into her husband’s office wearing a dapper suit, to the intensity with which she goes to bat for her integrity and her name on the pages of the books she wrote, Knightley is Colette, and Claudine, through and through.
Colette follows Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette during the period of her life when she was married to Willy, from the time they were married to when their marriage fell apart. During the lifetime of their marriage, we see Willy’s career reignited after Colette writes a series of books featuring the trysts of Claudine, a character based on herself and the adventures of year school years through the sexual drama of her marriage. As Willy publishes these novels under his own name, forces Colette to keep writing, and continues to take credit for her work, what we see unfold on screen is the flourishing of a woman into herself, her identity, and her sexuality.
As the years pass on screen, we watch a meek, timid Colette, once eager to please her husband, grow into a confident woman driven to make her own money and have sex with whoever she wants, most frequently women.
The playful tone of the film and its honest handling of both Colette and her husband’s relationship with one another and with others is set early on. There’s a moment where the pair is riding in a carriage and Willy whines about Colette flirting with another man at a party. Colette slyly quips at him that she was actually more intrigued with the wife, and just like that, Colette the movie and Colette the woman find their voice together.
What follows is a sharply funny sequence involving both husband and wife’s attraction to the same woman, and therein lies the realization that Colette has so many layers to peel back. She loves Willy, the bastard that he is. She loves sleeping with a feminine American debutant, and she loves Missy, the European aristocratic divorcee who sometimes prefers men’s clothing and pronouns. She also loves herself, her work, and her freedom.
This film is a biographical portrait, a tender coming of age story, a clap back against the patriarchy, and exploration of womanhood and sexuality, and surprisingly, a poignantly funny period piece. Colette fights back against the constraints of being taken advantage of by a husband, for having her light dimmed, and for temporarily being smothered by a man who insists on taking credit for her work. Whether it’s 1918 or 2018, this message is one that never goes out of style.
As we constantly battle to be taken seriously, whether it’s for the recognition of our professional roles or our relationship roles, lesbian and bisexual women are constantly pushing to be validated. Colette takes down the patriarchy in stride and without a corset. She is the superhero we have been waiting to see save us on screen, and who needs a cape when you have a dapper suit?