October 31, 2018 – This is quite a yarn, based on the first marriage of famed French writer Colette (born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) the beginnings of her writing career and her divorce during the Belle Époque. It is a tale of female empowerment during a time when such a thing was almost unheard of.
This, however, is not really a French movie, since the spoken language is English, not French, and a British actress, Keira Knightley (of “The Imitation Game”) has the starring role. Colette, living in the Burgundy region of rural France, is from a poor family, who marries her off to a successful writer, Henry Gauthier-Villars (“Willy”) in 1893. Willy (played by Dominic West of “Tomb Raider”) is a libertine and a spendthrift, making lots of money and spending more.
Willy, with creditors knocking at the door, gets desperate enough to suggest that his wife try her hand at writing. Although he criticizes her writing at first, he later finds out that she has a gift. She pens a wildly popular series of books featuring the female character Claudine. The Claudine books and plays made Willy and Colette very wealthy for a time, but once again, Willy spent money far faster than it came in.
Willy locked Colette in a room for hours on end, forcing her to write the Claudine books. For Colette, she began to dislike writing and the fact that her husband was taking all the credit for her work. He refused to allow Colette to tell anyone that she was the real author of the books.
While Willy frequently cheated on his wife, he didn't seem to mind that Colette had romantic alliances with women. She had a long relationship with French noblewoman Mathilde “Missy” de Morny (played by Denise Gough of “‘71”). When Willy sold the rights to the Claudine books without consulting her, that was the last straw.
Colette was furious and left him to embark on a stage career with Missy. The two shared on onstage kiss at Moulin Rouge in Paris, causing a near riot. Missy and Colette's stage career was not lucrative, but it enabled her to have some freedom. Eventually, she would write a book, La Vagabonde, about her travels during her stage career, and of the difficulties of being an independent woman.
While the movie focuses on Colette's troubled marriage to Willy and the immediate aftermath of their split, Colette would go on to become even more famous later in life. Colette's most famous work, Gigi (1944) was made into a movie in 1958. There are some postscripts in the movie which tell what happened later in life to the characters, including one which indicates Colette would eventually regain the copyrights to her beloved Claudine books.
Kightley, West and Gough all give fine performances in this film, along with the supporting actors. Writer-director Wash Westmorland (“Still Alice”) smoothly navigates this sprawling story, while keeping the focus where it belongs, on Colette. This film rates a B+.
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