Kiera Knightley Shines in Uneven But Charming ‘Colette’ (FILM REVIEW)

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French author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known professionally for much of her career simply as Colette, provides a fascinating case study on the push for women’s liberation in early 20th century Europe. Hers is a story of awakening, discovery, and actualization. Spurred on by the artistic and intellectual community surrounding her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (or, simply, Willy, his nom de plume) she morphs from a simple country girl, to notorious libertine, to Nobel nominated writer, to icon.

Kiera Knightley plays the author in director Wash Westmoreland’s Colette, a film that examines the author/artist/actress/journalist’s rise to acclaim and infamy over the course of her first marriage to Gauthier-Villars (played here by Dominic West). As a film it is the latest in a line of autumn-released period biopics that dutifully ticks its boxes but does so with an undeniable charm that makes it easy to fall under its spell.

Knightley gives her best performance since Atonement as the titular character, channeling the raw mystique of her subject. Colette was an author who challenged norms and pre-conceptions, pushing the famously loose society of turn-of-the-century France even more open, once even starting a riot at the Moulin Rouge for sharing an on stage kiss with her lesbian paramour, the Marquise de Belbeuf (Denise Gough). Knightley imbues her subject with a steadily growing sense of power and intensity, more than doing justice to the complexity of her real life counterpart.

The film focuses largely on Colette’s famously tantalizing Claudine novels, written as part of her husband’s so-called literary factory and published under his pen name. While the money flows in and allows the two to live a life of luxury and scandal, there’s a growing sense of tension as, more and more, Colette wishes to be recognized for her work. She might be reaping the rewards of her artistry, but Willy is getting the acclaim.

This sends us down a determined path, and we see the struggles Colette has with independence and self-worth. Her fight for recognition outside the scope of her husband is powerful, every slight, no matter how small, fuels a need for emancipation that puts not only her fight, but the fight for all women, in a moving light. West is wonderful as Willy, who is often infuriating with his sense of patriarchal naivete. His motivations are, so often, “that’s just what men do.” One gets that impression that it’s not real malice, but privileged self-absorption, and it beautifully contextualizes the turn-of-the-century push for liberation.

Though far from perfect, Colette still manages to have some delights that make it worth experiencing. If nothing else, it shines a spotlight on an author who deserves a deeper look and study in our modern era. Colette was an author of no small influence, and her life should serve as a beacon for those who wish to exert a sense of independence and self in their own lives. For that, if nothing else, Colette is needed.

Colette is now playing in select theaters.

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