(London Film Festival, October 11th, 2018, LFF Cinema, Leicester Square, 19:30)
After marrying Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a successful Parisian, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) is transplanted from her childhood home in rural France to the intellectual and artistic splendor of Paris. Soon after, Henri convinces Colette to ghostwrite for him. She pens a semi-autobiographical novel, about a brazen country girl named 'Claudine', that becomes a bestseller and a cultural sensation. Colette and Henri become the talk of Paris, and their adventures go on to inspire additional 'Claudine' novels. Colette's subsequent fight over the creative ownership of these books defies gender roles and drives her to overcome societal constraints, revolutionizing literature, fashion and sexual expression.
Colette is a pioneering writer who goes on to become a cultural icon in France and inspire generations of artist. The film illuminates the passions and ambitions that drove Colette to blaze trails as one of the most celebrated authors of her time. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette is a young woman from the provinces whose life changes after she becomes engaged to a wealthy man of letters from Paris, Henri Gauthier-Villars. After their wedding, Colette is thrust into the metropolitan life of Paris in all it's finde siècle glory. She tries to adapt to her new bourgeois life but her confidence in the marriage is shattered when she learns that Henri is a philanderer. She confronts him and returns to the country in disgust, but Henri woos her back with promises that in the future their marriage will be more of a partnership. Soon after their return to Paris, Henri presses Colette to write a novel about her country schoolgirl days. She pens a novel entitled 'Claudine At School', about a feisty, savvy young woman, 'Claudine', who's essentially the first literary incarnation of the modern teenager. Initially unimpressed with her writing, Henri declares the book too feminine and stashes it away. It's only after they fall on hard times that he rediscovers the manuscripts and manages to get them published under his own name.
'Claudine' is an immediate sensation and soon becomes the most popular book in all of France. Henri uses the success to create a line of ancillary merchandise; 'Claudine Cigarettes', 'Claudine Perfume', 'Claudine Soap', and 'Claudine Dresses'. He creates a brand. In turn, Colette and Henri effectively become the first modern celebrity couple; the toast of 'The Belle Époque'. But at the core of their relationship, the dark secret of the book's true authorship smolders. Upon meeting Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson), a wayward Southern belle full of flirtatious charm, Colette explores her attraction to women and embarks on a passionate affair with Georgie. Henri's own interest complicates matters when he begins to see Georgie behind Colette's back. Justice is served when Colette writes the next 'Claudine' novel, penning a thinly-disguised account of the entire event, including Henri's betrayal, for the world to see, and to gossip about. At the premiere of the theatrical version of 'Claudine', Colette meets Mathilde de Morny, 'The Marquise De Belbeuf' (Denise Gough), a non-conforming aristocrat who wears men's clothes and embraces a masculine identity. They form a relationship and, emboldened by 'De Belbeuf's' example, Colette challenges Henri, fighting for ownership of her creative voice and ultimately her freedom.
Here's a woman well ahead of her time, well-remembered for her beloved novels 'Chéri' (1920) and 'Gigi' (1944). Colette is of a time and mindset where rules were being broken and she's part of challenging convention and opening up the world. Colette questioned social mores, sexuality, gender. She's a game-changer. There's also a lot of wit and warmth present in the story of how Colette loved Henri but became her own woman. She makes life decisions that were astonishingly radical, Going onstage is a way of claiming her voice. She exposed a breast in the play flesh at a time when women were still debating whether to show some ankle. Colette is fearless. Colette is coolness. She can steal people's hearts if they discover her. Henri has a sort of rambunctiousness, confidence, and famous charm. He's not a great guy, but he also has to convey a lovability and an intellect. There's one grooming component which Henri never lost sight of. Mathilde de Morny, 'Marquise De Belbeuf' is brave and self-actualizing, not really craving the spotlight. She becomes a quiet but powerful presence in Colette's life who showed her love. Mathilde s brilliant and is at the forefront. Colette's mother, Sido, (Fiona Shaw) has consistently challenged gender conventions in her work. The audience needs to understand that she realized she'd produced a daughter who's so different and has such great potential.
The celebrated couple of Colette and Henri occupy a thriving and vibrant fin de siècle world of salons and music halls. He's a showman like Malcolm McLaren, figuring that the more outrageous they're, the more the public would lap it up. For a long while, he's quite successful betting on that. Colette and Henri lived on the brink of modernity. He senses that and has a very strong impulse to capitalize on it. The cost to that's, a woman's being exploited. Henri is a leech and a chauvinistic manipulator. He's very tyrannical. You've to not hate Henri in order to comprehend why Colette stays with him as long as she does. They can behave horrifically and yet there's a charm and humor which means they can get away with it; at least for a while. Colette addresses a marriage that becomes, at it's core, exploitative, while also acknowledging the complexities of the relationship. The film concentrates on the truth of these two, on what drew them to each other and what their fuel was together.
As with many relationships, things exploded and there's debris. Each derived a lot from the other's company. There's a great creative urgency to Colette and Henri's relationship. Colette enters into the union of a teenager with an older man; what's so dramatic is, how and when she will emerge from it; fighting for agency and independence. Their marriage ran the gamut; love, hate, tenderness, perversity, mentoring, and rampant exploitation. Much of it played out in the public eye, so in many ways Colette and Henri functioned as modern celebrity couples do. To that end, while Henri may have lacked the creative writing talent of Colette, he's a highly innovative marketeer. He sees great commercial potential in 'The Claudine Stories', and turned them into a brand, with a wide range of merchandise. The film assesses Henri as an impresario. He plays his part in the theatre which is Paris at the turn of the 20th century, when it's culturally the center of the world. He knows their personal life is fair game; he embraces scandal, and understood how to manipulate publicity.
Colette changes seismically but not melodramatically. Henri changes, too, to slightly broken; but things are happening to him, whereas with Colette she's active. Henri is of his time, and Colette gained the confidence to retaliate against his misogyny and laziness. He gets left behind by changes in the world and society. But the action taken against Henri comes not so much from society as from the woman who could not be put down and stopped; it's not only Henri but also the structures of the patriarchy that could no longer contain her. Henri and Colette's relationship is not just them being at home in their apartment. These are two people who are affecting the world, and it's affecting them. Colette's break-up with Henri and develops a relationship with Mathilde De Morny, 'Marquise De Belbeuf', a lesbian who adopted male dress and attitudes. That,works narratively and conceptually, for Henri and Mathilde to impact one another more directly; two different variations of masculinity coming face to face.
Here's a thrilling story, and one that's still so relevant. Colette is a very well-known artist, yet the real story of what she went through is something not well-known. The film regards her marriage to Henri, who's quite a character himself. Their relationship came at a pivotal time, the beginning of the modern age when there was a tectonic shift happening in gender roles; women were demanding more power in all areas of life, and men were resisting with all their might. All of this crystallized for Colette personally and professionally in that marriage. It's a female-driven narrative, about a woman who's incredibly important in terms of the history of women's literature and politics. The film recreates Paris during the rich and remarkably eventful era of 'The Belle Époque'. So when Colette first goes to the salon in Paris she's taking it in and seeing everything, and the staging and camera moves are very much inspired by Ophüls. When you're in the front of the theatre, it's Paris. When you're in the backstage area and on the stage looking one way, that's Marseilles. Finally, when you're walking through the foyer, it's Brussels. It's like a 'Rubik's Cube'!
Through it all, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette has been a beacon. She just kept going; she broke barriers and stayed true to her artistic voice. Her life is a story in itself, and that stories can change the world. The film reintroduces audiences to someone who was very much on par with today's 'Time's Up Movement'. This was a woman who overcame oppression and claimed her voice; the parallels are powerful. People will see the strengths of now reflected in someone who spoke up for herself and for being free. That women still are battling; the statistics in film are depressing, and a sexism is very much there. Feminism is back on, but there's a long way to go. We're going to now look at history slightly differently. The story in "Colette" happened before 'The Two World Wars', yet it gets forgotten as it gets pushed further back into history and time moves forward. These are big themes, the struggle of the under-represented, and the disempowered being heard. Women have started to seize some power; the story of who holds the power and how that power causes a story to be written in a certain way is what's happening right now. Women are too often starved of seeing themselves in all their brilliance and all their flaws onscreen. "Colette" is an example of exactly that, but from 100 years ago, and still able to resonate strongly.