Apparently Colette was the Madonna of early 20th-century France. Courting controversy, offering massively popular salacious entertainment, flirting with bisexuality and playing against gender norms. The sad irony is that Colette’s literary output in the first decade of the 1900s was still far more tolerated in France than it would have been in America fifty years later.
We really need more movies like Colette, detailing women around the world who were way ahead of their time, and moved along the evolution of their cultures. Even by today’s standards, it’s rare to see a period costume drama so feminist in nature — time and again, we’ve seen historical films that either ignored the women in favor of the men in control, or dwell on how shitty women had it.
Colette isn’t quite that kind of movie. Keira Knightley plays the title role as a woman in a truly progressive relationship by just about most standards, a husband, Willy (Dominic West), who admits it would be hypocritical to forbid his wife her own romantic flings when he himself sleeps around. But, as one of several women Colette becomes involved with notes, “He keeps you on a long leash — but it’s still a leash.”
In essence, Colette is still the story of a woman breaking free of the constraints of the man in her life. She is also the real-life French writer, the most celebrated female novelist of that country, whose first four novels were actually published under her husband’s name. Willy is already an established writer who has people ghost writing for him, and once he marries Colette, in his mind it seems natural that she should contribute. In at least one instance he literally locks her in a room until she produces some pages.
Willy isn’t exactly depicted as malicious here. He’s just increasingly clueless, a guy who fancies himself forward-thinking by virtue of the permissions he grants his wife, but who still says Colette publishing under her own name is a ridiculous idea because women writers don’t sell.
It takes a while for Colette’s story to coalesce. Having no knowledge of the historical, real-life writer, I spent some of the first 20 minutes or so of this movie wondering exactly where this story was going. But, these scenes do provide some vital information about Colette’s background, particularly her childhood home in the country with an amputee veteran father (Robert Pugh) and stern but tender mother (Fiona Shaw).
And then, a little while after starting their married life, Colette begins writing for Willy. This ultimately proves a precarious scenario, with Willy occasionally paranoid about word getting out about her being the actual author of these wildly popular novels written under his name. In the meantime, Colette’s romantic exploits allow for some luminous actors in supporting roles: Eleanor Tomlinson as Georgie, who plays Colette and Willy against each other; Denise Gough as the wonderfully androgynous Missy, who proves to be Colette’s most enduring relationship.
Colette must go through a series of subtle outside influences — including that of her own mother — before it dawns on her what kind of hold her husband really has over her. It gets back to that “long leash” still being a leash: he holds her back, and this is the story of how a woman in the 1900s found her way on her own terms. It seems we’ve gotten an unusually wide variety of stories of such women this year, and honestly there can never be too many. We’ve had decades — hell, millennia — of the heroic man in our stories. Women getting their turn is long overdue, and Colette sits quite comfortably among them.