Colette is a movie that certainly heightens the senses. The sights and sounds of early twentieth century France are detailed in every delicately plunked piano, in the layers of draped dresses and tightly fitted suits. Even the rank smells of the Paris streets, which should not be able to penetrate the separation of time and fiction, somehow seem to wind up in the theater air. That is the power of this film. It can entirely transport you from a seat in Ann Arbor to somewhere far away where life is one country trip after another. The world is exquisite and lush. As for the characters that inhabit it, unfortunately, they are not as well-drawn.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) is the woman that should be at the center of this particular story. She is a provincial girl, daughter of war hero. We are told these things in conversation. But it is Knightley’s portrayal that truly lends Colette her delicate naivete and youthful uncertainty. This early version of Colette may be more hesitant, but she still knows what she wants. Colette marries Henry Gauthier-Villars or Willy (Dominic West) because she loves him. He is charming, in his own way. At a party, Willy is always the one at the center. He is the booming presence that people will inevitably be drawn to. And Colette is drawn to him. Yet, it is just as easy to see that Colette and Willy’s relationship is fundamentally imbalanced, even by age alone. He is much older than her and he is the one who chooses to marry her even without a dowry. It is a decision that shapes the rest of their marriage, especially her attitude towards him. Colette feels in debt to Willy for noticing her, for choosing her, for giving her the opportunity to live and write in Paris. But what is clear to the audience is a more involved situation to Colette. She gets drawn in again and again, with less and less motivation to stay. Each critical juncture feels like an end. Each time she stays. It becomes more and more difficult to justify, especially as the film declines to give Colette a chance to voice her opinion. It is an inching journey that one wishes would progress in leaps and bounds instead.
Perhaps this wish springs from the contemporary tone, especially as it concerns societal views of gender and sexuality at the time. In its careful avoidance of the soapbox, the film becomes vague and passive. Colette proclaims to be an overtly feminist film, but it shies away from displays of feminine power until the end of the film. It even resists showing much of the sexist discourse that would surely be on display. It is freeing to cavort through the streets of Paris without the disdainful stares and the outright hostility. But it also uproots the grounded nature of the film. We are transported to beautiful place, albeit a bit fantastical.
The element that remains the most interesting is the relationship that forms between Colette and her initial literary creation, Claudine. Here, the quasi-fictional quality of the film works in its favor. Colette wrote Claudine on the memories of her childhood, already lending the novel an autobiographic feel. However, as Claudine becomes a phenomenon, Colette is shunted to the side. Thus, Willy is given credit for everything, even for Colette’s own life. The film is at its most potent when it reflects on Colette’s life through the distorted reflection of Claudine.
A biopic can never fully encompass a whole life. Colette makes a valiant if not complete effort. Ultimately, it is a beautiful period piece that shows less than it means to.