Colette traces the true-life journey of its eponymous protagonist, a talented author, from a woman in love, to a fierce warrior in her fight for sexual and creative emancipation.
A powerful feminist parable for the ages in the guise of an everyday biopic.
‘Tis the season of biographies—falalalalaa-lalaalaalaa, naturally—where we celebrate showy physical transformations, rote episodic narratives, and that sweet, neverending footnote for an epilogue. Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to take one cursory glance at Colette and judge an entire book by its cover. That it stars Keira Knightley front-and-center doesn’t exactly help it from presumptuous prejudice against yet another true-story film, but don’t dismiss it just yet. Like its eponymous protagonist, the film has a lot more going on beneath the surface.
That [Missy’s] character arc feels relevant even today is both terrific and terrifying in equal measure.
None of this is apparent in the film’s first fifteen minutes though. Beat for beat, it—and to an almost sneaky level—follows the strict, episodic format of most biopics. It’s at the precise moment when you feel practically complacent and unengaged when director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice) and co-screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida) decide to pull the rug off from under your feet. From here onward, it’s scene after scene of filmmaking verve that’s as electrifying and subtly subversive as its subject’s transformation, and (eventual) emancipation.
And it doesn’t stop there—the makers take their time to establish the supporting characters around Colette with patience and focus. Fiona Shaw as the protagonist’s mother barely has a few scenes in the movie, but the nuance she gives her character, and the attention-to-detail its writing pays to her role is remarkable. In the film’s very first scene, Shaw’s Sido struggles to have her own voice in the midst of two mansplainers—it’s triumphantly executed, and her restrained performance paves the way for the rest of the societal structure viewers would get to see in the following minutes.
Resting Brit Face
Keira Knightley stars in Wash Westmoreland's Colette, a Bleecker Street and Lionsgate release.
Shaw follows an unsurprisingly great Dominic West (The Square) as Willy, the flamboyant husband who isn’t reduced merely to a two-dimensional template-oppressor. There are many different shades to Willy’s personality; his toxic misogyny is only a part of the whole puzzle. A lot is going on between his narcissistic demeanor and the occasional gaslighting, and as detailed as it is, the makers do not specifically design the character for viewers to dislike. He might be a central conflict, but the film makes a respectable effort in letting the audience know that he’s merely a byproduct of a broader, more sinister patriarchal narrative.
[The film possesses] the power to render [viewers] breathless, and with a strange desire to conquer the world.
Among the many diverse people in Colette‘s world, however, the two stars of this show—without a doubt—are Denise Gough (71) and Knightley. Gough, in particular, is such a revelation. Her commanding presence in exuding Missy’s overall aura of masculinity is, hands down, the most balanced and realistic depiction of gender nonconformity I’ve seen in recent times. That the character arc feels relevant even today is both terrific and terrifying in equal measure. Westmoreland and Lenkiewicz don’t just treat her as a flat message though—instead, what you see from Missy is a reminder of what privilege can be used for.
And then there’s the ever-dependable Knightley as the eponymous protagonist who shines bright with confidence that is singularly inimitable. Taking us through each of Colette’s four phases —the hopeful young adult, the loving wife, the oppressed artist, and the angry woman fighting for independence, both creative and sexual—she excels in making a gradual, organic difference with each step to match them. What viewers end up with, fortunately, is the journey of a woman toward empowerment and freedom from societal norms that possesses the power to render them breathless, and with a strange desire to conquer the world.
With Colette, director Wash Westmoreland subverts flavor-of-the-award-season biopic tropes, diving deep into the flawed foundations of sociopolitical structures then. It’s a searing feminist commentary on gender politics, misogyny, emotional abuse, and the reclamation of one’s own sexuality; a sneaky little beast that comes at you out of nowhere and stays with you long after you’ve left the cinemas. Highly recommended.