The best that can be said about Wash Westmoreland’s biopic of acclaimed French novelist, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, is that it’s a film with the best intentions at heart. It sets out to tell an important story addressing male exploitation of female work, stigmas attached to female writers, and the importance of continuing to voice personal identity even against prejudice and difficulty. And in all honesty, it does do this. It’s a very clear and indispensable part of the film. Unfortunately, the message is pulled down somewhat by a film that is predominantly lacklustre and uninteresting.
The film focuses on the period of Colette’s life (Colette being played by Keira Knightley) when she was writing a series of novels around the character ‘Claudine’, inspired by her own experiences and opinions. Her husband ‘Willy’ (played by Dominic West) convinces her to have them be published under his name, which results in the books obtaining great cultural, critical, and commercial success. However, with Willy taking most of the praise for the books, Colette becomes rightfully angry at the way her work has been exploited and tries to have the works published under her own name, whilst determining to take control over her own life.
Westmoreland is pulling no punches in showing Colette’s annoyance at the double standards placed upon men and women in the time period, and her elation at finding her own means of income and success.
As stated earlier, the film has some clear themes in mind; when they are the focus of the movie, Colette becomes increasingly entertaining to watch. Westmoreland is pulling no punches in showing the frustration and resentment that Colette feels in seeing her praise being directed at her husband, her annoyance at the double standards placed upon men and women in the time period, and her elation at finding her own means of income and success. These aspects of the film are definitely the best parts, both when it is presenting them overtly – with Colette being locked in a room by her husband until she has written more for him – or covertly – such as him being annoyed when she seems to flirting with a man at a party, but relaxing when she states it was his wife who interested her. The film’s critique and criticism of the male ego is a particular pleasure to watch. Whilst refraining from giving too much away, I will tell you that it is no coincidence that the antagonist of the movie is only referred to as ‘Willy’.
Unfortunately, outside of its thematic level, Colette offers limited interesting qualities, with some of the production elements being particularly disappointing. The set design, for instance, is particularly unremarkable. Every room in every building in this film looks exactly the same, with very little distinguishing features and nothing to set it apart in regards of tone or connection to the narrative. The music choices feel like they were taken from a Spotify playlist entitled ‘Best of Classical Music’, and rarely add anything to any of the scenes. The cinematography offers up very few stand-out shots throughout the movie, and when the few memorable shots come onto the screen, they are pretty to look at but nothing to write home about. These elements don’t make the film awful by any means and if you’re not looking for them then they won’t damage your experience of the film. But they’re still worth noting in any case.
Knightley is in her element in this period piece and is able to bring to life this character is a way that feels both contemporary and still rooted in the past
The acting, predominantly from Knightley and West, is quite good but compared to the rest of their careers is hardly notable. Knightley commands the range of the emotions of the character very well, going from an idealistic and passive young adult living in the country, to a far more confident, self-assured, resilient, and ambitious character. She is in her element in this period piece and is able to bring to life this character is a way that feels both contemporary and still rooted in the past. In contrast, West balances the range of likability that is need for a role built in pretence and arrogance but is still unabashedly despicable in a way that feels owned and centred. He is sure in his actions, though he knows at the back of his mind that they are wrong. He’s not a villain that you’ll love to hate in any way, but he is a strong counterpart to Knightley and has a smug attitude that you’ll just want to punch in the face. However, none of the performances shine anywhere near their potential, and whilst interesting were nothing captivating.
Colette is not a bad film and has something to say that it clearly takes pleasure in saying. But if you put the message aside, it’s a film with very little to offer from a stylistic or filmmaking perspective, that is entertaining but not ground-breaking. It’s a good way to get the topic of the destructive capability of the male ego out there, but it could have done with a few more elements that would make it stand out on the merits of its own back. I’m glad I’ve seen it, I’m glad that right now it’s out there, but I don’t think it’ll stay in people’s minds for long.