Movie Review – Colette (2018)
Keira Knightley is a British actress who has made a career out of period dramas. Even in the big blockbuster for which she’s probably best known, Pirates of the Caribbean, she plays a historical character – a fictional one – but still historical. She’s made so many period dramas, it’s almost as if she hasn’t done anything else. It’s rare, it seems, to see her in anything set in contemporary times. This film is no different. Director Wash Westmoreland probably cast her because of her preponderance for these kinds of period pieces. Yet, despite not being set in contemporary times, it certainly has a message that resonates in the here and now, especially in the current Time’s Up movement.
Last year, when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, it was revealed that many women were not only sexually harassed and assaulted, but many women had their careers ruined due to men. Women who acknowledged and shared stories of their harassment became part of the Me Too movement on social media like Twitter. However, many women needed a way to address these issues and others like the wage gap and the fact that women have not gotten the same opportunities, advancements or even credit for their efforts in the workplace.
This film, written by the late Richard Glatzer, tells the story of a woman who suffered similar hardships for the work she did. In late 2017 and early 2018, women developed the Time’s Up movement to fight back and demand women get equal or fair wages, equal or fair opportunities and equal or fair credit in the workplace, which they were denied for so long. This film tells the story of a woman who did just that 100 years before this current Time’s Up movement.
This movie, though, is very similar to Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (2014), which told a similar story. The main similarities is that the woman in question was being robbed of her work by her own husband. It’s the same case here where the woman is essentially working for her husband. She thinks she’s a partner, but she soon realizes that instead her work is being basically stolen. Big Eyes didn’t make much of an impact in terms of awards or box office, but because this Knightley movie is coming out in the wake of Time’s Up, maybe it will have more of an impact. It probably won’t make as much money, but Knightley does seem ripe for another Academy Award nomination.
It helps that this film is a bit more entertaining, nuanced and is dealing with more interesting or compelling issues other than the main one. Westmoreland and his late partner Glatzer were gay and married, and in this film there is a queer aspect. Knightley’s character of Gabrielle Colette had lesbian love affairs. In fact, she had a relationship with a woman while married to her husband for years.
Dominic West (The Affair and The Wire) co-stars as Henry Gauthier-Villars aka Willy, the husband to Colette. He’s a music critic and writer, based in Paris. He has a factory in the city where he churns out his works whether for magazines or newspapers. His factory is similar to that of the male creative in Phantom Thread (2017). Instead of fashion, Willy produces words on pages. The difference though is that Willy does less of the work. He instead farms out or doles out the work to others. One of whom is his wife whom is the country-girl daughter of an old friend of his. The age difference doesn’t bother her, nor the work, which she enjoys and is a natural at fiction. Things don’t become problematic until it’s revealed that Willy is having various affairs.
When Colette discovers this and confronts him, he encourages her to have her own affairs, especially after she expresses same-sex attraction toward women. The film doesn’t dive into it too much, but there is a question of what one considers betrayal or infidelity, particularly within the confines of marriage. Willy doesn’t see Colette’s affair as infidelity if it doesn’t cross gender lines, and she never pushes back on him saying that it’s only OK if he only has sex with boys. They pretty much evolve into an open marriage wherein the only betrayal is lying.
Surprisingly, neither of them have children, despite all the sex, with the exception of one. Colette and Willy have Claudine. The thing is that Claudine isn’t a real child. Claudine is the titular character of the books that Willy has been publishing. Colette created her and does all the writing for it, but Willy takes the credit. It’s not as clear here as it is in Big Eyes if Willy is simply responding to sexism or pride and ego, but there is a bit of a custody battle that isn’t as pronounced but turns out to be effective.
Westmoreland and Glatzer directed Julianne Moore to her Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice (2014). The Oscar nominations won’t be announced until January 2019, but Westmoreland, this time sans Glatzer, potentially does the same with Knightley leading her to an incredible monologue toward the end where she talks about Claudine as a child and also the identity that she gave and was taken from her in a truly powerful way that made me a bit misty.
Denise Gough plays Missy, the long-running love interest to Colette. She’s great or is just as good as Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs (2011) as a woman who dresses as a man. Whether Missy is simply a cross-dresser or is truly transgendered, she or he gives breath to an expression that couldn’t have been easy in early 20th century France. The film also depicts a bit of the homophobia or transphobia of that time, but also the joy of same-sex attraction or gender-fluidity.
Rated R for sexuality and nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 51 mins.