Part way through Colette, our lead says to her husband “I can read you like the top line of an optician’s chart.” It is an amusing but biting line signaling the refreshing winds of change that sweep through this proto-feminist period drama. Don’t be fooled into dismissing Colette as yet another stuffy costume snore starring a type-cast Keira Knightley. No, this quick-witted and feisty feature crackles with energy and humour as it pits the forces of traditional marital dynamics against a lop-sided distribution of talent.
Set in Paris during the turn of the twentieth century, this is the true story of novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) and her marriage to Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). Willy, as he was affectionately known to his adoring public but latterly referred to by Colette as a “fat, smug, lazy, selfish bastard” was a patron of hedonistic excess and an “author” whom Colette dutifully ghostwrote for. Willy became a celebrated rock-star of the Parisian literary field despite his fragile empire being built on the duplicitous foundations of Colette’s writing talent. It is a familiar tale of sexist and professional treachery that will no doubt garner comparisons to the recent film The Wife (starring Glen Close). However, this is more than The Wife’s “behind every great man” story, as Colette dives head first into the sexual politics of a woman coming to terms with her autonomy and gender identity.
It is a simple story but with wonderfully complex characters that you can really sink your teeth into, and thankfully screenwriter Richard Glatzer (Still Alice) takes plenty of time to explore them. The two leads offer vibrant performances that bristle with a pin-sharp wit as they boil in their volatile chemistry. Knightly’s take on a blossoming woman in a society that demands feminine submission encapsulates a heady mixture of humility and rage as she bounces off West’s quite brilliant balance of bombastic bluster and faux naivety.
Although the film’s somewhat rigid visual style doesn’t quite match the lively milieu of its characters, this thoroughly entertaining biopic is worth seeing for the two outstanding performances alone.