We all learned long ago, that when it comes to period pieces - Pirates of the Caribbean, Pride and Prejudice, The Duchess, A Dangerous Method, Anna Karenina, and so on - Keira Knightley is the go-to girl. Her statuesque figure and understanding of the times allows her to bring an authenticity to whatever decade she plays in. This is just as true in Wash Westmoreland’s Colette, a period drama that feels very relevant today but doesn’t quite manage to reach transcendent heights.
Director Westmoreland (also serving as co-writer) takes on the true story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, French author of the renowned Claudine novels whose penmanship was often forced and controlled by her-then husband Monsieur Willy. While the popularity of Colette’s work rose, so did the exploitative nature of her husband as well as Colette’s own desire to explore her own sexuality and identity. Despite the latter being a major theme of the film, the story perseveres through the lens of the two’s relationship for better or worse. It’s a strange move, seeing as the film follows Gabrielle 'becoming Colette' and her fight for autonomy. In spite of how society tries to mould her, her story is never truly her own.
Unsurprisingly, Knightley is deliciously assured in the role. Colette is a character with a fire in her belly, and Knightley easily sets it aflame with a sense of modernity that is perfectly fitting here. The real Colette’s outlook on life was recognisably current and yet Knightley finds balance in bringing that to the screen alongside the contemporary views in which her ideas are rooted. In a bedazzled tortoise on show at a Parisian party, she finds the artificiality of that society and says she’ll stand against it. Much like Thomas Adès’ brilliant score for the film, Knightley knows how to make Colette at once delicate and determined, calm and raging which is a delight to see onscreen.
Matching Knightley’s charm, Dominic West brings life to the wickedly bombastic Monsieur Willy, who is a living and breathing embodiment of toxic masculinity. Time and time again he wrongs Colette and skips over any sort of apology, instead turning the blame on her ignorance - getting into debt from gambling and womanising is the to-do thing for the Parisian man, and country-girl Colette must accept that. She doesn’t. With her every defiant act and refusal of the norm, Willy responds with increasing disapproval while simultaneously falling further into his vices and weaknesses. Unless, of course, there is a way to earn a profit from her actions; monetarily or sexually.
The themes of gender, sexuality, and sexual expression play a key role in the film. “To you, infidelity is a matter of gender,” quips Colette as Willy scolds her for even considering taking a male in company as opposed to another woman. Outdated ideas such as male sexual gratification from a lesbian romance, the scandalous nature of the non-straight-cisgender, or quite simply the power imbalance between the husband and wife are presented by the film but not probed deeply enough.
Colette undeniably wants to question our modern views on the fluidity of gender and sexuality but it doesn’t quite say enough to make a lasting impression - simply put, Knightley doesn’t spend long enough in the suit.