Once again, Keira Knightley is out there giving a powerhouse performance in period clothes, but this time, she replaces the corset with a dapper suit. And Colette may just be her best performance yet. Knightley plays Sidonie–Gabrielle Colette, one of the most celebrated French novelists of all time. But her famous Claudine novels were never always her own. As a woman, she was forced to hide behind her novelist husband’s name and watch him get all the glory for her work. But, as the film shows, she fights back – for her work, and for her name.
Colette is a badass that has slipped the minds of many, but Wash Westmoreland’s film, despite taking place in the late 19th-early 20th century, is timely, as women are still fighting her fight. Fighting for equality, a voice, and the right to be individual. Many of Knightley’s past characters have worn the accessory of asphyxiation, but right out of the gate, Colette’s refusal to conform to the traditional female dress of Belle Époque high society is just one of the indications that the audience is in for a “We can do it!” kind of narrative.
Colette follows the period in the writer’s life when she was married to writer Henry “Willy” Gauthier-Villars. We see the sexual drama of their marriage and Willy’s newfound success as a writer after he asks Colette to write a series of books based on her school days. The Claudine novels became an almost overnight success, transforming into a national brand with young women lining up for the latest in Claudine dresses, beauty products, cigarettes – you name it, they had it. While keeping inside her talent from the world, she flourishes outward in this story of identity.
The film paints the portrait of a woman whose life is explored over two decades. Knightley is at the top of her game here, as she manages to create the illusion that her character ages throughout the film’s runtime. Her skin may lack the signs of age, but her demeanor does not. Through Knightley’s gestures, mannerisms, the way she carries herself, the audience feels Colette’s growth from the shy Gabrielle to her husband Willy’s fantasy of her as Claudine to finally, Colette; she transforms into an independent, self-made force and releases herself from the chains her husband has tied to her for so long. As Willy, Dominic West will no doubt make many women hate men more than they already do, but he proves just the right match to his costar.
In the midst of Parisian high art, culture, and cuisine is the discourse on gender politics, as we see Colette’s struggle to write her own name under the title of her novels. But the film also discusses sexuality, and as a queer period piece, it’s full of it. Despite Colette being married to a man, she is sexually fluid. Throughout the course of the film, we see Colette explore her sexuality through her style – going from ballgowns to neckties – and her partners. She has her first female fling with Georgie, played by Eleanor Tomlinson who sports a divine Louisiana accent. Followed by one of her lifelong partners Missy, played by Denise Gough who plays up Missy’s masculine charm well as the perfect support to Colette.
There has been some discourse around the casting of Denise Gough, as many claim Missy was a trans man. However, while Hollywood does have a terrible track record when it comes to casting cis actors to play trans roles, Missy’s identification as a trans man is not discussed in the film, nor is it possible to be 100% certain that she was trans in real life. While Missy has a masculine attitude and fashion sense, she could be a he/him butch lesbian. This isn’t uncommon as, for example, Greta Garbo often wore male attire and referred to herself using male pronouns, but was not a trans man. The film does, however, contain a scene where Colette addresses Missy using male pronouns and corrects Willy when he uses feminine ones. It’s an important piece of narrative in a medium that is often lacking in identification of the kind. Despite this, the film isn’t absent of transgender talent, with actor Jake Graf in his role as playwright Gaston De Caillavet, emphasizing the point that casting trans actors, in general, is equally as important as casting them in trans roles.
It’s a poignant, unabashedly feminist period piece that is playful and honest in its storytelling of a young girl’s coming of age, her exploration of her own womanhood, and her fight against the patriarchy. The fashion may have gone out of style, but the message has not. While no longer is it, “The hand that holds the pen [that] writes history,” but the voices that shout the loudest that do.