Biopics are a constant in the world of cinema and are no stranger to the Academy Awards. From Damien Chazelle’s First Man, to Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018 is the year of a particularly noticeable resurgence of the genre. After its world premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the 62nd BFI London Film Festival has finally brought forth Wash Westmoreland’s Colette onto the European festival circuit.
For Westmoreland, Colette was clearly a labour of love. Alongside producers Elizabeth Karlsen and Stephen Woolley (the duo also produced Todd Haynes’ 2015 lesbian romance Carol) , the director introduced the film at the Embankment Garden Centre with a tearful dedication to his late husband, American writer Richard Glatzer. Westmoreland co-wrote Colette with Glatzer and after the success of his previous feature, 2014’s Still Alice, Colette became a personal passion project. In fact, Westmoreland revealed that Glatzer asked him to finish pursuing the project just days before his untimely death in 2015. With this in mind, the personal and emotional link is clear throughout the heart of the film.
As someone whom was unaware of the eponymous French author prior to the film, Colette reads as an almost outlandish tale that some may feel is naught but hyperbolised fiction, and made only to thrust the supposed ‘LGBT+ agenda’ into the limelight once again. Instead, this reasoning highlights exactly why Colette is a remarkable, much warranted film: to remind people that history is full of figures that identified (or that we now know identified) as LGBT+, and that the LGBT+ community is not a modern phenomenon.
Colette spans several years in the life of the young French woman and celebrated author, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley). We are introduced to the budding courtship between Colette and popular writer Henry Gauthier-Villas, commonly referred to by his nom-de-plume of ‘Willy’ (Dominic West). The lack of a dowry leaves Colette in an almost undesirable position as a potential spouse, thus her father (Robert Pugh) is ecstatic at the couple’s courtship. Colette’s mother (Fiona Shaw) however, is a little concerned that Willy just won’t understand her daughter. The formal and almost impersonal repertoire between the couple in front of Colette’s parents, juxtaposed with the saucy revelation of a pre-existing sexual relationship, establishes Colette as an usual woman of her time. The words of Colette’s mother, Sido, ring ominously true.
The fifteen year age gap between leads Knightley and West emulates that of the real Colette and Willy. This serves to go beyond just adding a touch of historical realism, and presents quite a visually bizarre coupling. As the exquisite young Colette marries the greying, mustachioed Willy, the chemistry between Knightley and West is unexpectedly tangible.
Sexual compatibility does not translate to a well-balanced relationship, however. The couple’s codependent relationship is incredibly toxic and almost cannibalistic in the way they devour each other professionally, emotionally, and sexually; Knightley and West bounce off each other to give some of the finest performances of their careers.
The fiery tempestuousness of their marriage is the driving essence of the film, not unlike the portrayal of Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly’s marriage in Craig Gillespie’s 2017 ice-skating biopic I, Tonya. For all her wittiness, Colette is still very naive, and Willy serves only to feed his ego and line his own pockets. His purchase of an opulent country home for Colette is initially sweet, but becomes a chilling prison when he locks her in a room when she refuses to write a sequel to the bestselling ‘Claudine at School’. Colette initially volunteered to write the first novel in help her husband’s finances despite his gambling and fondness for prostitutes. Thus it is with each bang of desperation on the door that one’s heart breaks for the young woman that only ever wanted to please.
Ultimately, Willy’s narcissism and bullyish nature is performed wonderfully by West and Willy exhibits an extreme case of toxic masculinity; he is enamoured by the idea of man corrupted by a woman, and by the power dynamics within a relationship. Praise must be given to the dialogue choices in the script. Willy often speaks in a domineering, condescending manner towards his wife – he “forbids” her to do things that he himself partakes in and barks commands at her. Willy is obsessed with placing himself in positions of power, even casting himself as headmaster and Colette as Claudine in a sexual roleplay. Willy shouting that he is the ‘progenitor’ of the ‘Claudine’ series is the epitome of his physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. A shot of Willy working in his study with a reflection of Colette looking over his work is cinematographer Giles Nuttgens expertly conveying Willy’s strong presence and perceived dominance over his wife.
It is Willy’s narcissism, and his presumed ownership over Colette, that enables the film to succeed at what it does. The film challenges preconceived ideas about a woman’s place within marriage and bisexuality. Willy is a law unto himself, actively encouraging the idea of Colette partaking in a sensuous lesbian affair with the American socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson) but forbidding her from sleeping with men despite his own frequenting of prostitutes. Considering the film spans the late 1800s and early 1900s, one may be surprised that Willy would be so encouraging of Colette exploring her bisexuality. Unfortunately, this comes from a purely self-serving stance derived from sexual fantasy. The idea that women sleeping with other women ‘doesn’t count’ as an affair is an incredibly misogynistic belief that belittles women and reduces them to sexual objects existent for a man’s pleasure. This perception is still a prevalent problem today, and exploration of these themes in Colette is a fantastic piece of social commentary included by Westmoreland.
Thus, it is unfortunate that Westmoreland undermines this brilliant commentary to an extent by portraying Willy embarking upon an affair with Georgie as comedic. This scene elicited guffaws from the audience and arguably undermines the film’s portrayal of bisexuality by reducing it to comedy.
That being said, Colette is a masterful piece of cinema that shows that one can make a film that is both historic and progressive. Knightley fills the role of Colette perfectly, both visually and emotionally. Her character is captivating whether in delicate dresses and in throes of passion with Willy, or in a perfectly-fitting suit and sleeping with her second lover in the film: Missy (Denise Gough). The relationship between Missy and Colette is a world away from her marriage with Willy; the lovers have nothing but the best intentions for one another, and that first tender “I love you” is sincere and passionate in a way that Willy could never act. Colette’s bisexuality is portrayed incredibly authentically. Colette and Missy’s dance act towards the end of the film is both carnal and elegant; the dancehall’s reaction is split between celebration and homophobia, and Missy’s insistence to not dance with Colette again due to this reaction, makes for impactful cinema.
The beautiful thing about Colette is that the film never feels like Oscar-bait as so many biopics often do. Instead, Colette bucks this trend- it is a cinematic love letter to strong women and boundary-transcending love.