Director: Wash Westmoreland
Stars: Keira Knightly, Dominic West, Denise Gough
We think that we advance, that society is bettering itself through the generations, that progress is made, but history frequently presents us a different version of events, as though it is the flat circle of which Rust Cohle spoke in the first season of True Detective. The things that now seem progressive have, perhaps, always seemed so. And that constant state of nearness is itself a kind of bondage; the false promise of acceptance and normalcy. Of not mattering at all.
Wash Westmoreland follows the touching and intuitive success of Still Alice with this trip into the past, and France on the cusp of the 20th century. His film is littered with nods to the future lying in wait; technological revolutions or revolutions in business – the idea of the brand and brand culture particularly. Colette shows a world changing in as little as a decade.
The film fills French bodies with Anglo actors as Keira Knightly stars as Gabrielle Colette, young wife to popular Parisian ‘author’ and socialite Willy (Dominic West). She soon becomes another of his ghosts, writing a series of novels all featuring the character Claudine. Her novels pique the national consciousness and make celebrities of them both. But always the credit goes to Willy, and Colette herself is left waiting in the wings, admired but not celebrated.
This story of their lives together also explores their liberated approach to sexual identity. Initially, Colette is enraged by Willy’s near-immediate infidelities (which he palms off weakly as a consequence of his gender), but she comes to accept his affairs as she initiates her own with women of intrigue who wander into their ever-changing circle. Westmoreland plays these adventures as light, jovial escapades. Colette adopts a wry smile and a coquettish raised eyebrow… conveniently burying the thornier issues of emotional complexity.
Things grow more interesting when Missy (Denise Gough) arrives on the scene; born female but living as a man. He fascinates Colette and, as the rift between her and her husband grows wider, enables her to step out from under Willy’s influence and into her own limelight.
Colette is notable for being a mainstream release that devotes considerable screen time to a trans character, more so for presenting Missy with very little in the way of conflict or comment, leaving that up to us. He simply is, and Gough is quite fantastic in the part. The non-binary stance of the film invigorates what is otherwise a frequently ambling and – in terms of form – rigidly conservative affair. As if not wanting to rock the boat too boldly, Westmoreland conforms to the established aesthetic of prestige period drama the whole way. The film is visually boring and poorly paced. It is quite fortunate that the material itself makes up for this.
Knightly’s lead performance as Colette doesn’t quite blossom as one expects, however. The subject of the film she may be, but Knightly ironically falls into the shadow of Dominic West, whose lively, rambunctious depiction of blowhard Willy recalls Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash somehow barrelled back in time a century. West is incredibly big in the film, so much so that anyone he shares a scene with (frequently Knightly) is pushed to the margins. And with Gough effectively replacing him in the second hour, Colette never quite gets to feel like Knightly’s film. Still, it juxtaposes nicely with the queer near-miss of her breakout hit Bend It Like Beckham, having the balls to go gleefully gay when it wants to.
But it is Missy who remained with me. If Colette made me ruminate on one thing, it is that in the intervening time we perhaps haven’t moved forward so much at all. Some, granted. But not enough to normalise. The representation here is marvelous, don’t get me wrong, but it is still as notable as its absence elsewhere.
These things take time, I suppose. I hope time is not a flat circle. I hope that in far fewer than 120 years, Missy will be as normalised in popular dramatic cinema as Colette’s fluid sexuality. This is a good step in the right direction. And not for nothing, the film recognises the wonderful love affair a person can have with a notebook, with putting a pen to paper, with writing. Sitting here tapping these thoughts into WordPress is all well and good, but nothing beats the scratching of ink. The real Colette was a pioneer, and we live in a fortunate time in which such women are being celebrated on screen. It is not something to bemoan or put down. So it’s a shame to say that Colette doesn’t quite do her justice. When she finally claims her credit, it is little more than an afterthought in the narrative. A footnote.