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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Colette ***

Starring: Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough, Eleanor Tomlinson Director: Wash Westmoreland Country: UK Colette is probably the most famous female writer to have emerged from France. Writing at the time of the Belle Époque, she became one of the literary juggernauts who would become responsible for the romanticised Paris that the world is still in love with today. The creation of her autobiographical character Claudine would strongly influence French fashion and popular culture, while shaping the image of young French women in the eyes of the world. But though her legacy is enduring, is Colette’s story actually worth giving the big screen treatment? Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is a country girl, but falls in love with the older writer and publisher Willy (West), a family friend. They marry and move to Paris together, but as Willy struggles to find good writers to keep his publishing house afloat, he suggests that his wife turn her hand to writing. Creating Claudine, whose stories are a thinly veiled version of herself, the books are published under her husband’s name and become an instant smash. As their fame rises, both engage in extra-marital affairs, with Willy encouraging his wife to sleep with women. But when an affair with an unusually open lesbian socialite known as Missy (Gough) becomes more than just sex, Colette begins to want control of the stories, insisting that her name be given to her work. Emerging from The Year Of The Woman, this is a story of feminist empowerment, with a strong woman overcoming the patriarchal system she is living in. But actually, the patriarchy here is her husband, who is trying to pull his family out of poverty by capitalising on her talent. Of course any system in which women can’t publish under their own name is fundamentally flawed, but she readily admits that without his encouragement she would never have started writing and without his publishing house she would never have been published at all, so the overcoming of oppression here isn’t actually that great. And while he is unfaithful to her also, she too is widely unfaithful to him. So as feminist poster-girls go, Colette hardly embodies the #metoo movement, which is what it feels like the director is attempting to achieve. Knightley is an actress not known for her range, but thankfully Colette falls neatly within her prim and starched British abilities... except she’s French... and that Frenchness is depicted not by her accent, demeanour or mannerisms, but through her loose morals. The life of Colette is filled with moments of drama - her later marriage to a Jewish man while living in occupied Paris during WW2 probably would have made for a more interesting story frankly - but the early stages of her career fit neatly into what the English-speaking world like to see about France early twentieth century: literary salons, lavish decadence and lots and lots of sex. Except, as Knightley has said in interview, the lesbian sex has been “toned down so they won’t be seen through the male gaze”... or is it so that it’s more “palatable” to the more traditional audiences of period dramas? For an audience now well-versed in biopics, there is nothing that remarkable about Colette’s story. There’s lesbianism; there’s female emancipation; there’s a non-traditional relationship: it’s a story perfectly suited to 2018... except the plot is pretty thin. As usual for a biopic about an artist, a narrative has been cobbled together and scenes cherry-picked from biographies to sensationalise her life. And the film is only a bicycle and string of onions away from entirely embodying the Gallic cliché. And with a whole host of French actresses making waves in Hollywood in recent years, why choose a fading British has-been for a role so quintessentially French?


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