Keira Knightley’s portrayal of early 20th century French author Colette deserves special acknowledgement in the biopic of the same name. In fact, one can look at Colette as a meta tribute to the British actress, known mostly for so-called corset period pieces, who has long boasted the charm and charisma to raise staid parts like the wife in the dark/damsel in distress (she was the most interesting thing in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) to another level.
Early in Colette, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the young version of the would-be author with the singular name, tries on a corset but doesn’t make it out of the dressing room before complaining of its constricting quality. She will never wear one again in the movie. Beyond saying something about Colette, the film also stands as a comment on the sort of typecasting the actress has endured over the years, a moment that adds a fourth wall busting layer to her portrayal of a woman bucking against expectations. After all, for a long time Colette wrote for her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West nearly unrecognizable under a fat suit and bushy Balbo). Henry also went by a single nom-de-plume: “Willy,” and found his greatest success when Colette ghost wrote the first book of the Claudine series for him in 1900.
Willy is portrayed as all that is brutish about men. Not long after the two are married, Willy is breaking wind in her presence. “Intimacy in all its savage abandon,” he declares at her disgust. She will not put up with him for long, and Knightley carries her character with consistent strength. Colette never seems pitiful. As she goes along with the scheme of writing about her life and fantasies for Willy to ride on toward increased fame and fortune, there is always a verve emanating from her. With shoulders back and eyes alight with an awareness of Colette’s talent, Knightley always allows some form of dignity to shine through her performance. She doesn’t even fuss with a French accent. The costuming, locations and showing the writing in French is all director Wash Westmoreland shows to connote the French setting.
There’s another instance of meta-Knightley worth noting. It comes when a character pays Colette a compliment about her teeth. After calling them beautiful she goes further by telling her she’s “like an alligator.” The fact that Knightley has never seemed to have done anything to “fix” her teeth pays off for this scene on several levels. She owns the moment, a woman proud of something that would make many doubt their own power when considering their physical appearance. Here it adds strength in the character and allows for the actress to harness her own natural beauty to inform that. It’s part of what makes Colette a strong woman that should speak to everyone, from insecure women to objectifying men.
Though Westmoreland, who co-wrote the script with Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, follows a straight chronology, connecting the dots with title cards that note certain years, the film stands as more than a biopic. Beyond Knightley’s ownership of the performance is how vital the woman she portrays is to today’s day and age. Her strength to find comfort in trousers and in the presence of another woman (Denise Gough) is not about fitting in but about finding her personal bliss. It’s not so much about battling the other sex, as it is embracing one’s own truth, despite social constraints.
Colette runs 111 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our South Florida area in the following counties and theaters:
PALM BEACH COUNTY: Regal Shadowood 16, FAU’s Living Room Theaters, Cinemark Palace 20, AMC CityPlace 20, Movies of Delray 5, Cinemark Boynton Beach 14 and XD, Movies of Lake Worth, Cobb Theatres – Downtown Gardens 16, Cinepolis Jupiter 14, AMC Indian River 24
For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Bleeker Street invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.