What if Merchant-Ivory ... but woke?
What if you took the sumptuous production design of A Room With a View or Howards End — all those bustles and corsets and dickeys and top hats, all those horse-drawn carriages and calling cards and country estates — and invested it with a new sense, and/or sensibility, of this our modern age?
I'll tell you what if. Wash Westmoreland's handsome, achingly well-intentioned and less than lively Colette, is what if.
The story: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) is a girl of the French countryside, wooed by the raffish author and publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars (pen name: Willy), played with gratifyingly insufferable smarm by Dominic West. They marry, Colette finds Willy's Parisian friends perfectly beastly (they are) and he convinces her to write about her years at school — and she throws some sex into it, to help sales.
Which it — specifically, the novel Claudine at School — proceeds to do. Westmoreland's film is particularly savvy at capturing the life-cycle of a literary/cultural phenomenon. Period biopics love to hang lampshades on major life events by stuffing them into stilted dialogue, and Colette is just as guilty as any ("Claudine is a hit — you see young girls dressed as Claudine everywhere these days!") But, crucially, it doesn't stop there — we're invited to watch the book's success slowly blossom, with a good deal more detail than we might expect. And things do get pretty granular and process-y: The film's chief tension, such as it is, derives from Willy's refusal to let Colette publish the Claudine stories under her own name, and heated disputes over [checks notes] publishing rights.
Director Westmoreland and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens don't skimp on the swoony period-film accouterments that viewers — especially those eagerly expecting to pass an hour and change watching a film about a scandalous French writer of the early 20th century — demand. The thing looks great: Colette's childhood cottage is so swallowed by wisteria you'd be forgiven for thinking she grew up in a hedge, and Knightley appears fittingly languorous as she and one of her lovers (Denise Gough as Mathilde de Morny, or "Missy") laze in a sun-dappled meadow.
Knightley is fine, here, and conveys Colette's sly intelligence (we can tell that she sees Willy for the buffoon he is, from the jump), so the arc of the story isn't so much the-scales-fall-from-Colette's-eyes, as much as it is Colette-gets-tired-of-the-scales'-sexist-b.s..
Which makes sense, given the film's dutiful, sincere, progressive politics with respect to gender roles and sexuality. When it's content to show us Colette and her retinue happily frolicking, the film reminds us that sexual fluidity, then labelled "scandalous," "libertine" and — gasp — "artistic," today rejects any labels at all. The film isn't content to leave it at that, however, and keeps stopping dead to have one or more of its characters say as much.
Though historians are undecided whether Gough's character Mathilde de Morny was transgender, the film emphatically isn't. He is, and he gets a speech about it. It's a good speech, as far as it goes, but it's dramatically inert. Similarly, a scene in which Colette finally tells Willy where to get off, and remonstrates him for all the sexist foolishness she's had to put up with, causing Willy to splutter and look abashed and beg forgiveness — it's cathartic, to some degree, sure. But from a storytelling perspective it's blunt, repetitious, wildly unnecessary and filled with language that could have been copied from the white board of an empowerment seminar breakout session. It's another instance of the film's perfectly admirable contemporary sensibility imposing itself on history, flattening the story and its characters in the process.
There's much to admire about Colette; the problem is how desperately it wants you to know that.