If the movie Colette is to be believed, French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette had an extremely colorful life. As it turns out her life was even more eventful than is brilliantly portrayed by actress Keira Knightley.
The movie encompasses Colette’s move in 1893 from her small village in Burgundy to Paris after her marriage to author and critic, Henry Gauthier-Villars (known as Willy). Here she struggles with her husband’s gambling, partying and womanising lifestyle, writes best-selling novels, and falls in love with cross-dressing noblewoman, Mathilde de Morny (known as Missy). She creates a storm by kissing Missy on stage at the Moulin Rouge and by the end of the movie, is divorced from Willy and travelling around France performing in pantomimes.
A little research suggests in the years following the film’s conclusion, Colette married several more times, survived the Nazi occupation of Paris and wrote a number of other books, including Gigi. Six years before her death in 1954, she was nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
In the movie, Colette is 20 when she marries Willy, who is around 15 years her senior. Not enjoying Willy’s `social scene’ she makes her own friends and explores her sexuality.
Forcing her hand is Willy’s behaviour. As we discover, his literary success is due to the ghost-writers he employs. Any money he earns is quickly spent supporting his flamboyant lifestyle. Desperate times lead Willy to persuade Colette to write a book for him. The resultant “Claudine at School” (“Claudine à l’École”), is drawn from Colette’s thoughts and experiences as a 15-year-old schoolgirl.
Willy claims the credit for this and the three other books he either forces or encourages Colette to write. Eventually she tires of his deceitful and hurtful behaviour and forges her own life.
One of the joys of Colette is watching Keira Knightley in action. She gives a stunning performance as she grows from a confident – but at times, subservient girl – to a woman totally in charge of her destiny.
Dominic West is equally as good in his role as Willy. While he treats Colette and those around him badly, his personality is such that they are still drawn to him (after all it takes Colette a long time to leave him). While flawed, he’s good company and funny – and West successfully brings these characteristics to the screen.
Other strong performances come from Denise Gough as Missy and Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie-Raoul-Duval, the woman both Colette and Willy have an affair with!
The recreation of Paris life in the late 1890s early 1900s is another highlight of the movie, as are the costumes.
It’s a little strange that a movie about one of France’s most famous writers is all in English. However thanks to the story line and the performance of the actors, this doesn’t diminish the appeal of this enjoyable story about a most remarkable woman.
Colette premieres in movie theatres around Australia on Thursday December 20.
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