SIDONIE-Gabrielle Colette was a prolific French writer. She was a rebel, a trendsetter, and a woman of boldness and courage. However, she was not always so.
For years she lived under the shadow of her husband, her novels written under his rules, and published under his name. Time would see Colette take smalls steps away from her husband, allowing herself to make her own destiny, and change how things were for legions of woman living under the rule of a man. This film tells her story.
Keira Knightley stars as Colette. Born in the late 1800s in the French countryside she was always a little more independent than was the norm for her time. Outwardly she was a country girl, naive and cosseted. The truth was far more scandalous.
Colette was courted by the much older Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). He was a famed womaniser and renowned critic who squandered his money in Parisian salons. Colette’s mother, played by Cork’s Fiona Shaw, had hopes of a marriage for her daughter despite not having a dowry for Colette. What she didn’t know was that Henri, known as Willy, was wildly in love with Colette and that the couple has been carrying on an illicit affair right under her very nose.
The couple wed and moved to Paris, where Colette struggled to adapt to salon life. She learns that Willy is broke and living far beyond his means. Worse yet, she discovers that he has never written a word in his life. His reviews, his fiction work was all written by others, a group he referred to as ‘The Factory’.
With a wife to provide for and mistresses to keep, Willy’s finances are worse than ever when he decides Colette needs to earn her keep by writing. Locked in a room, she is forced to write but discovers a passion and talent she never knew she had.
Her first book is about Claudine, a sheltered country girl. It is published under Willy’s name and becomes an overnight sensation.
As the public appetite for Claudine grows, Colette is forced to write more stories of the young heroine. They are risqué, unconventional, and send the people of France into a frenzy. The more Claudine becomes the people’s hero, the more Colette begins to find her own feet.
The books are still attributed to Willy, but Colette becomes braver and comes to the realisation that she is fonder of women than she is of her own husband.
As she embraces her lesbian side, she discovers a world of interesting, brave people including the resolute Marquise de Belbeuf (Denise Gough), one of the first transgender people to live in the public eye. Each new encounter makes Colette realise that it is time to start living her life and claim Claudine as her own.
Knightley is always watchable but the quality of her acting varies. Here she is at her best, giving a performance that is gusty, tenacious, and vibrant. West clearly relishes Willy’s exuberant attitude to life, and together they spark and bounce off each other, giving the film vivacity. A brilliant supporting cast adds to this fascinating story, and a stunning wardrobe and props department will leave you gasping for a glass of red wine in a Parisian bar.
If the film has a fault it is the occasional dragged out scene, nonetheless this is a first-rate film and definitely worth watching.