Colette (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Before she wrote under her own name

Writers are not exactly an ideal subject for movie, but “Colette”, a biographical drama film covering the early career years of French novelist Colette, is a pretty engaging stuff. Although it is sometimes hampered by its rather scattershot narrative spanning around 15 years of her life, the movie still holds our attention with considerable wit and intelligence, and it is also buoyed by the enjoyable performances from its main cast members.

During its early part, the movie depicts the development of a romantic relationship between Colette (Keira Knightley) and Henry “Willy” Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a famous critic and writer in Paris during the 1890s. Although Colette is a young village lady without enough dowry for her marriage, Gauthier-Villars has fallen in love with her anyway as often meeting her as the son of her father’s friend, and Colette also loves him a lot as hoping for a better life outside her rural hometown. Eventually, they become a couple and then live together in Paris, and it looks like Colette gets everything she has ever wanted.

However, their married life turns out to be not that happy. While frequently spending lots of money and accordingly worsening their financial situation which is already quite bad, Gauthier-Villars often commits acts of infidelity, and this certainly angers and frustrates Colette. Although she forgives him in the end, she also demands that he should be honest to her about whatever he does behind his back, and he agrees on that because, well, he still loves her despite being a crummy husband to her.

As their married life subsequently becomes a bit more stable, Gauthier-Villars suggests to Colette that she should try writing a story. While he has several writers who willingly write stories to be published under his name, he wants to get a better story to sell, and Colette has already shown considerable writing talent while writing letters on his behalf. After spending several hours alone in her private place, she gives him her first novel, but he is not so impressed just because he thinks her novel is, uh, too ‘feminine’, and that certainly hurts Colette, who did try as much as she could for her husband.

However, when their financial situation hits another bottom not long after that, Gauthier-Villars comes to have a second thought on his wife’s first novel, so he sends it to his publisher, and, what do you know, the novel becomes an instant sensation among Parisians. While her husband is excited by this unexpected success, Colette is not so pleased with her first novel being published under his name, but she agrees to continue her partnership with him as she is not so sure about whether she can stand on her own as a writer.

And things get better and better for her and her husband. As demanded by her husband, Colette wrote several sequels for her first novel, and they also become quite popular in public. The young heroine of her novels, named Claudine, is turned into a sort of cultural icon, and, not so surprisingly, she soon becomes the basis of a popular stage play which is incidentally produced by Colette’s husband.

In the meantime, the movie gives us a number of amusing episodes involved with Colette’s flexible sexuality. While tolerating her husband’s infidelity as before, Colette becomes aware of her sexual attraction to women, and her husband does not mind that at all when she frankly tells about that to him. When Colette happens to get romantically involved with the wife of a wealthy American businessman, he cannot help but interested in meeting that lady in question, and there is a hilarious sequence showing Colette and her husband individually spending some private time with that lady.

Several years later, Colette comes to befriend Mathilde “Missy” de Morny (Denise Gough), an aristocrat woman who is quite frank about her gender identity as shown from her masculine attire. As she spends more time with de Morny, they become more attracted to each other, and de Morny, who instinctively senses that Colette is the one who wrote all those Claudine novels, advises Colette to be herself. Becoming more aware of her unhappy status, Colette comes to try acting along with de Morny, and, though the result is not so successful, she becomes more confident about herself than before as willingly presenting herself on the stage in front of audiences.

As the story eventually arrives at the inevitable moment between Colette and her husband when she finally decides that enough is enough, the movie loses some of its narrative momentum, but the main cast members keep engaging us nonetheless. While Keira Knightley, who has always been a dependable performer for period drama films since her Oscar-nominated turn in “Pride and Prejudice” (2005), is terrific as usual, Dominic West is effective as a charming but deeply flawed man, and he and Knightley are believable as their characters push or pull each other throughout the film. Although most of supporting characters in the film are rather underdeveloped, Denise Gough and other performers surrounding Knightley and West are mostly fine on the whole, and Gough clicks well with Knightley right from their first scene.

“Colette” is directed by Wash Westmoreland, who also wrote the screenplay with Rebecca Lenkiewicz and late Richard Glatzer (he died not long after co-directing “Still Alice” (2014) with Westmoreland). Under his competent direction, the movie works as an interesting look into Colette’s life and career, and you will probably become interested in her several notable works including “Gigi”, which was the basis of that famous 1958 classic musical film of the same name. The overall result is modest, but this is still a handsome and likable period drama with some feminist elements resonating a lot with the recent female movement of our time, and it is certainly worthwhile to watch in my inconsequential opinion.

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