When I started drafting this review I thought I was going to write something about good biopics and then I realised I didn’t know what made a good one. I couldn’t place that magical X factor that made First Man’s depiction of Neil Armstrong more compelling than say 42, the dramatisation of Jackie Robinson’s early days in baseball. Personally, after some time to think on it I decided it was the end result more than what you experience in the moment. If I had to find something that bound them all together it would be that great biopics give you the desire to know more about their subject. Colette is one such film.
Set at the end of the 19th century, Colette tells the story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), a young french woman who marries ‘famed’ writer Willy (Dominic West) and begins writing for him under his pen name. As her work takes off and jettisons the couple into the zeitgeist of Parisian society she begins to expect more from their arrangement as she pushes against the gender norms of the time while she embraces her creativity.
It begs saying right off the bat that Colette has plenty of social relevance today but despite its comments about gender politics and feminism in general. Despite this, all of it is secondary to a story about freedom. What makes Colette someone to admire, even emulate, is that her choices on how she lived her life came first before how other people chose to judge her choices. Much in the same way, the film’s overt sexuality isn’t something to balk at, it merely serves as another example of the adventurous nature of the woman and how expression and freedom of expression meant more to her than any perceived social normities.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland, Colette is an artfully wrapped present of a film with each scene carefully crafted to give us room in the head space of a complex woman, not only as she has her first experiences of the Paris art scene but also of what being married to a man like Willy can be like. The idea of a personality waiting to burst out of Colette is one he plays with in almost every scene. Not only is Westmoreland’s direction intimate but it has an almost claustrophobic feel to it. The trappings of married life have become an actual trap. Almost all the scenes Knightley shares with West are within the confines of a building or room dedicated to contain her. A house all her own becomes a jail cell not just for her body but also her mind and soul.
Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Westmoreland play on this notion as Colette constantly contends with those around her making choices for her or telling her what to do and when to do it. The importance of characters advising her, allowing her to flourish instead of fester is not lost because it so rarely happens. Much like in last year’s Columbus it is the words not said that reveal the most with both Colette and Willy being guilty of hiding their true selves through their words and their writings. A simple look or glance tell us more than anything they might promise their respective other.
At its core, Colette is the tale of a marriage and everything that comes with it. These are two intellectual, lively characters bouncing off each other and Knightley and West make a delightful double act. Colette is a woman who seeks love but isn’t bound to its limitations, her real desires lie in a complete life, that to her is the thing to love, not a person. West on the other hand manages to humanise someone easy to describe as a reputation hungry philistine. His flaws carefully disguised behind a sense of humour and brightness that makes it easy to forgive his many shortcomings. His witty diatribes endear not only Colette to him but us as well.
Both are at the top of their game but in the end this is Colette’s story and Knightley commands every scene and judges her temperament constantly. As Willy tests her forgiveness not just through her devotion but also her work, Westmoreland ratchets up the tension and Knightley makes Colette like a coiled spring, waiting to explode at the right moment. When that moment finally arrives it is a sight to behold indeed. Each venomous word has been selected with such care it feels both cruel and relieving at the same time.
While it’s all well and good to witness her come into her own this is a heartbreaking film about how people can change over time and how the people we thought we knew could still surprise us. The rise and fall of Willy and Colette has many laughs but equal amounts of disappointments and its a testament to all involved that this duality is not skipped over to paint Colette in a more endearing light. Her stubborn nature and the flaws she shares with Willy make her the woman she is and that is why, in the end, I wanted to know so much more but I was extremely grateful for what I got.