Keira Knightley shines in bodice-ripping period drama Colette

by James Robins / 16 February, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Colette movie review

The story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a heroine of French literature, focuses on her early struggles.

No one ever made a good movie about writing. Scribbling or tapping away at keys does not a gripping drama make. It’s the life of the scribe that matters: scandal, strife, experience. An Ernest Hemingway biopic would be unwatchable if it weren’t for the constant drinking and occasional plane crashes.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the French woman of letters and Nobel nominee, crammed in about as much as Hemingway, her career spanning the charmed peak of La Belle Époque to the end of World War II. With Keira Knightley in the titular role, Colette charts her earlier years, from prim country girl to dedicated libertine.

During the film’s unpromising opening, she’s plucked from her idyll by handsome suitor Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), better known to Parisian society as “Willy”: a muckraker and connoisseur of popular filth, for whom the truth is something that always needs to be sexed up.

He introduces Colette to the city’s voluptuous charms: a demure Louisiana belle (Eleanor Tomlinson), saucy vaudeville acts, the transgender pioneer Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough). But he turns out to be both adoring and manipulative. He publishes one of Colette’s novels under his own name, takes the credit for creating the semi-innocent, semi-Sapphic schoolgirl character of Claudine and bows alone for the applause of an enraptured audience. We’re in similar territory to the recent Glenn Close movie The Wife, or the rumours about Vladimir Nabokov and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Willy is no outright villain, though. His love for Colette is genuine, although selfish, earnest but blind. He’s a product of a scandalous age. And it’s here that Knightley, so familiar with these bodice-ripping period pieces, truly excels. She plays Colette with an irrepressible sense of dignity: rather than condone her husband’s philandering, she demands honesty. Rather than churning out Claudine novels, she runs off to the theatre.

In the end, it’s this portrayal of a self-assured talent with a vivacious desire for life that lingers longer than any of the racier scenes. Which, to be honest, aren’t that racy. Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) prefers to leave the frilly nighties on. Colette is more intellectually stimulating than overtly seductive. The truly outrageous act (in the film’s era) is for a woman to claim an authoritative and unique voice for her own.



Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the February 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


How to enhance your dining experience – with water
103174 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Dining

How to enhance your dining experience – with water…

by Metro

A stunning dining experience isn’t just about food and wine. Water plays a big part too.

Read more
Facebook won't give up its insidious practices without a fight
103856 2019-03-22 00:00:00Z Tech

Facebook won't give up its insidious practices wit…

by Peter Griffin

Facebook came under fire for its response to the live-streaming of the Christchurch terror attack, but it's digital nudging that's also concerning.

Read more
In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Christchurch
103800 2019-03-21 15:36:46Z World

In photos: The world unites in solidarity with Chr…

by Lauren Buckeridge

Countries around the world have put on a show of solidarity for the victims of the Christchurch terror attack.

Read more
The tangled path to terrorism
103777 2019-03-21 09:59:55Z Psychology

The tangled path to terrorism

by Marc Wilson

The path that leads people to commit atrocities such as that in Christchurch is twisting and unpredictable, but the journey often begins in childhood.

Read more
If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it
103768 2019-03-21 09:31:27Z Social issues

If 'This is not New Zealand', let us show it

by The Listener

The little signs among the banks of flowers said, “This is not New Zealand.” They meant, “We thought we were better than this.” We were wrong.

Read more
Extremism is not a mental illness
103785 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

Extremism is not a mental illness

by The Mental Health Foundation of NZ

Shooting people is not a symptom of a mental illness. White supremacy is not a mental illness.

Read more
PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles
103805 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Crime

PM announces ban on all military-style semi-automa…

by RNZ

Ms Ardern pledged the day after the terrorist massacre that "gun laws will change" and would be announced within 10 days of the attack.

Read more
No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 years of GCSB & SIS public docs
103770 2019-03-21 00:00:00Z Politics

No mention of right-wing extremist threats in 10 y…

by Jane Patterson

There is not one specific mention of the threat posed by white supremacists or right-wing nationalism in 10 years of security agency documents.

Read more