The Belle Époque Era never looked more gorgeous than in this new period piece based on the first marriage of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. The interiors are resplendent; the outside nature scenes verdant. And Keira Knightley has never been better. Add a beautiful original score and this is a not-to-be-missed film.
Colette was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, but many do not know the early story of her first husband, Henri Gautier Villars and how he acquired fame through ghost writers. His best ghost writer was his young and talented wife, Colette. When she asked for her name to be placed on her Claudine novels, he refused. Like, “The Wife” ( reviewed Sept. 19th, 2018) woman as kingmakers is the theme of the year, as rightly so given the manosphere times.
Director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland highlights fluid gender and has Colette’s husband, played remarkably by Dominic West, sanction Colette’s lesbian trysts as long as he profits, both physically and financially. He is quite the libertine in frequenting prostitutes and keeping creditors at bay. He sells soap, perfume, fans, and even candy under the Claudine name. “ Since when is scandal bad thing?”, he coos. When he bends to pick up the post, he inadvertently farts to Colette dismay. “ Intimacy in all its abandon, my dear.” is his response. The writing is good.
West plays Willy, a soldier friend of Colette’s father. He romances the nineteen-year-old Colette with fawning visits and presents. One gift being a snow globe containing the Eiffel Tower. Later, Willy describes the tower as a gigantic erection that he is rather jealous of….and so it goes. Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and Westmoreland are having fun.
This is a character driven film, and Knightley is a period piece’s dream. She tells Willy that she can read him like the top of an optimologist’s chart. Colette’s mother, Sido ( Fiona Shaw) , played with great nuance after her cruel, step-mother role in the film “Lizzie”, understands her son-in-law, too. “ A mess, a profligate” , Sido ( Colette’s real mother’s name was Adele) calls him. Willy sells the rights to Colette’s Claudine novels for a mere 5,000 francs, and Colette tells him that he has “killed our child”. We learn from the film’s endnotes that Colette never spoke to Willy again.
Cinematographer Gile Nuttgens does his magic with a cat on an unmade bed, a bejeweled tortoise, velvet sets all in candle glow. Add an original Thomas Ades’ musical score to the lushness and we have a feast of movement interspersed with the silence of writing desks and ink wells. Denise Hough and Eleanor Tomlinson are both deliciously dressed and willing consorts to Colette. I loved it as a feminist coming-of -age story.