Art imitates life imitating art based on life in Wash Westmoreland’s bustling Colette, a Belle Époque dish of scandal, style and eventual liberation. Its subject, the novelist Colette (played by Keira Knightley), conceived of the original It girl, Claudine, who came of age in four once-scandalously sensual novels published in the first four years of the last century. Claudine took lovers, men and women, and became a Parisian phenomenon, inspiring young women in fashion and mores. Colette’s libertine character inspired her creator, too. Or so insists Westmoreland’s film, which parades merrily through parlors and theaters, country houses and the Moulin Rouge — and finds Colette slowly moving in life toward the passions she depicted in fiction.
Of course, nobody knew at the time that Claudine was hers. Colette’s husband, the enterprising author and publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars, or “Willy,” published the Claudine stories under his name. The choice was so natural for him that, onscreen, the characters don’t even really think to discuss it. He’s the writer, she’s the wife, and he makes it seem like the height of generosity that he’ll even work with her on the manuscript, suggesting some edits and adding some “spice.” A heartily whiskered Dominic West plays Willy, and in the film’s first half he and Knightley make for a thornily comic duo, but with him dominant. Colette writes for him, even when she’s not inclined to, and after the first Claudine proves a sensation, he literally locks her in a room to knock out pages. They’re broke, of course, and he spends lavishly, on drinks and dinners and mistresses; when caught in a tryst with a prostitute, he makes it up with young Colette by promising to get her a dog.
Success elevates Colette within the marriage, to a point. From the start, Knightley plays the novelist as utterly disinterested in convention, and just barely interested in writing. She’s a sharp-tongued young woman who has yet to find her place in this world but knows damn sure what her place isn’t. Once Claudine is the toast of Paris, Colette and her roguish husband relish the prank they’ve pulled — and Willy, sensing that Colette’s interest in romance with women isn’t just “spice,” encourages her into affairs of her own. Soon, Willy is seducing the same millionaire American woman Colette is already sleeping with, a tempestuous roundelay that will inspire the next Claudine story. And soon after that, Willy is asking Colette to dress up for sex in a Claudine stage costume.
These scenes kick along with an abandon rare in reverential film biographies. The film finds Colette striding into a modernity few around her are ready for, including Willy. As her marriage opens up, and Colette begins to take lovers of her own, Knightley summons up a moving sense of both relief and recklessness. This Colette is thrilled suddenly to have new options but she’s committed to pushing for more. Those new options get suggested by the set of Knightley’s jaw but also Andrea Flesch’s smashing costumes. As the years pass, and Colette sees new possibilities, her couture becomes smartly androgynous.
The film’s final third concerns her fighting for credit for her work, her falling in love with the proudly masculine Missy (Denise Gough) and her taking to the stage as dancer and actor. As always, Colette smashed life and art together, kissing Missy onstage at the Moulin Rouge and setting off a firestorm. As with most films about writers, Colette has little to tell us about actual writing, the endless hours spent toiling with the page, but it’s electric on the subject of how the world was changing — and how she seized from the chaos the life that she truly wanted.