“Colette” review Quaint period drama features issues of sexuality that seem made for 2018

We learn from our past. History repeats itself. Both these sayings are applicable to nearly every historical setting, and though they are often attributed to war films, I think “Colette” is a rare example where a film’s social issues are brought to the forefront of these remarks.

While watching “Colette,” I couldn’t stop thinking of “The Shape of Water” (2017, Guillermo del Toro), last year’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars. That film uses a fantasy setting to give voice to the underrepresented people of 1960s America: there’s an African American woman, a gay man, sympathetic (at least according to the movie) Communists, the merman creature, and the literal mute woman at the center. These characters are all crushed under the foot of a white, WASP-y, and terrorizing male figure – and with some explicitly fluid sexuality, therein lies 2017’s Best Picture, according to the Academy Awards. It addressed the plight of marginalized people, and “Colette” does a similar thing. 

I’m not saying “Colette” is an awards winner of a movie (though in some respects, it will easily garner some accolades. More on that in a minute); it doesn’t have a signature style like Guillermo del Toro’s directing, and doesn’t feature as many dynamic performances. But this period drama borrows elements from del Toro’s movie, featuring fluid sexuality and underrepresented people within a definitive historical setting. Set in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Keira Knightley plays real-life Gabrielle Colette, a French girl who marries a well-off writer under the pen name “Willy” (played by Dominic West). However, Willy is hardly a writer, as he relies on others to transcribe and publish his work for him. All he does is come up with vaguely interesting ideas. When he marries Gabrielle, he enlists her as well. Then, she produces a novel called “Claudine at School,” written from her own nostalgic point of view as a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Under Willy’s name, the novel is published, and receives international acclaim. Three sequels follow, some of them featuring graphic sex and other adult themes.

“Colette” starts as a woman’s fight for her literature, but the film quickly grows into a representation of every challenge a woman could possibly face in a patriarchal society. It watches like a controversial piece of literature reads: the story starts softly and then expands into deeper and more explicit territory. Colette, encouraged by Willy, pursues relationships with other women. She begins to liberate herself through her work as she gives thousands of other young women a voice. But she never receives credit. Willy is deemed the author, though people can guess the truth. The stage is set for this early on: Colette sees through the exaggerations of grandeur by Willy’s elite friends, and aptly classifies them as sad, boring people.

Knightley shines as expected, but her role as the strong woman in a period setting seems to be typecast for her now. She isn’t doing anything terrifying or new like in “A Dangerous Method” (2011, David Cronenberg). She has one spectacular moment in “Colette,” but otherwise it’s a role she seems mostly comfortable in. Dominic West is a formidable match for her, and their best work in the film is whenever they’re onscreen together.  

The film is exquisitely filmed, and there were times I really thought Joe Wright (“Atonement,” “Darkest Hour”) would’ve had some hand in the cinematography. There are several smooth camera pans, powerful shots, and repetitions in visual themes that “Colette” definitely deserves award nominations for cinematography, costume, and production design. 

Keira Knightley (right) plays Gabrielle Colette in a scene where her husband (Dominic West) compares her to an artist’s rendering of Claudine, the main character of Colette’s novels.

All of the above is admirable work on director Wash Westmoreland’s part. But “Colette” suffers from the same illness that many “social justice” movies suffer from today. It tries to tackle too much. The story goes from a commentary about elite class in the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras to a decidedly controversial tale of fluid sexuality and moral depravity. It becomes an erotic fantasy first, then tries to be a championing feminist film. It goes so far as to exploit the historical figure of Mathilde de Morny (nicknamed “Missy”) as transgender. Missy (played by Denise Gough) was a love interest to Colette for a long period of time, and in the film, her role is important in pushing Colette to pursue a career in the arts, out of her husband’s vice-like grip. Missy challenged the patriarchy of the day by wearing three-piece suits and smoking cigars, but historical records and research indicates that it would do her a disservice to simply classify her as transgender, which this movie eagerly seeks to do. It tries to push the social narrative further when it doesn’t need to. 

“Colette” aims to be a film for women and about women. Keira Knightley’s titular character is at the center, and though the script mostly sticks with her, it diverts just a tad too often into other territories of exploitation and strong sexuality. The fluidity of Colette and Willy’s love life is an interesting narrative tool, but the movie abandons it too quickly before moving onto other topics.

Overall, “Colette” aims to ruffle feathers yet remain heartfelt. It succeeds for the most part, but while the social messages can feel overwhelming at times, viewers can take solace for the talent behind the camera and appreciate the visual beauty of such an exquisite film. 

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