Like many biopics of female artists before the 21st century, Colette is another tale of a woman struggling to get her due while a dude takes credit for her work. It’s an exploration of identity at a time when there was little room to question gender roles and sexuality. What’s more, it’s a coming of age story about the voice of a generation as she was finding her own.
In 20th century Paris, young country girl, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) is asked by her husband Willy (Dominic West) to write a semi-autobiographical novel under his name to help boost sales of his struggling publishing house. Colette’s childhood stories (as well as her saucy sapphic escapades) not only succeed, but become a bestselling series of novels. Despite their fortune and fame, Willy’s reckless spending turns Colette into a workhorse. Over the course of their tempestuous marriage, Colette fights for creative control and the freedom to express herself.
At this point period films are Knightley’s bread and butter, and she finesses as future queer icon Colette. We watch as she evolves from an innocent country girl to a boss lady strutting the streets of Paris in menswear (which was illegal at the time!). Despite the many indignities she suffers, Knightley shows strength instead of victimhood. Side note: At the beginning of the movie she does this weird baby voice, which I’m assuming is to make it obvious Colette is young (despite pigtails and the film clearly establishing she’s 16)? It almost seems like a preview of her Sugar Plum Fairy character in the CGI monstrosity The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. It reminds me of this article on baby voices in movies.
I appreciate the fact that Colette’s queerness is never a question in this movie. Although she struggles with societal constraints, she is never ashamed of her sexuality. I get that shame is also a valid aspect of coming out, but it’s great that LGBT representation in film is more nuanced now. Willy even encourages her to sleep with other women, despite the gross double standard of “it’s not cheating if it’s a same sex affair” thing. Later on Colette takes on a trans boyfriend, Missy (Denise Gough rocking a very cool Christine and the Queens look), who touches on the fact that they benefit from certain privileges because of their wealth and class.
Colette doesn’t get her comeuppance until the end of the film, when she finally leaves Willy. Unfortunately for us, it feels a day late and a dollar short.
Header image credit: Bleecker Street