“When one can enter the enchanted kingdom of reading,” said Colette, “why write?” Many writers have expressed a profound distaste for their profession, but Colette (1873-1954) was one of the most natural talents ever to pick up a pen. Although she felt writing to be a dreadful chore she produced a constant stream of novels, stories, memoirs, essays and reviews. She received praising, almost idolatrous letters from authors such as Proust, Mauriac, Gide and Cocteau.
Colette would be the first ever French woman to be granted a state funeral, although the Catholic Church declined to send a minister, earning the holy fathers a stern rebuke from that good Catholic, Graham Greene.
Colette’s true genius was for life. Her books are filled with self-portraits and thinly-veiled snapshots of the people she knew. If her female characters are more vivid than their male counterparts, it reflects a thoroughly feminine sensibility and a mistrust of the opposite sex born from experience. This has made her a favourite ‘womens author’, even though she had no time for doctrinal feminism.
Wash Westmoreland’s bio pic, with Keira Knightley in the lead role, winds up long before Colette became a national institution. At the end of the film she is only in her early 30s, with her greatest novels such as Cheri (1920), yet to be written. The best reason for concentrating on those early years is that for Colette, they were formative of everything that would follow. It was the time she found her vocation as a writer, almost by accident, during her marriage to Monsieur Willy, a literary rascal who employed others to write his books.
The son of a military colleague of Colette’s father, Willy cut a dashing figure in the eyes of a naive country girl. Although he was 14 years her senior she found him congenial and amusing. This was the public persona that he brought to the Paris salons. The real Willy was a habitual philanderer and social climber, perpetually strapped for cash. His greatest contribution to literature was to suggest to his young wife that she write some reminiscences of her school days. This became the book, Claudine at School (1900) one of the literary sensations of the Belle Époque.
At first Willy found nothing of interest in the manuscript but two years later he dug it out and ran to his publisher. Pretending to be the author, it made him momentarily famous, but to convince Colette to write a sequel he had to lock her in a room for hours at a time. The Claudine novels were runaway best-sellers but Willy remained desperate for funds.
Eager to milk every drop of publicity from the series, Willy had Colette cut her hair in the same manner as Polaire, the actress who played Claudine in a stage adaptation. He encouraged his wife’s growing interest in dance and mime, and was titillated by her sexual attraction to other women.
By the time Colette finally left Willy, she was performing in risqué mimes, and enjoying a relationship with the Marquise de Belboeuf, aka. “Missy”. Her love of the theatre was such that she has been described as “an actress who worked with her pen”.
One of the problems with breaking off the story at this point is that it gives the impression Colette escaped the trials of heterosexual romance and found happiness as a lesbian. Yet the implication that homosexuality equals salvation is misleading, as Colette would be married on two more occasions. Despite her amorous friendships with other women, she was always drawn to men.
Keira Knightley gives a wholehearted performance as the young Colette, while Dominic West is a convincing cad as Willy. The other characters have merely passing roles, even Denise Gough as Missy, dressed as a man; and Eleanor Tomlinson, as a bored, rich American wife who has affairs with both Colette and Willy.
Colette takes the usual liberties with facts and chronology that we’ve come to expect from bio pics, although not to the same extent as the recent Freddie Mercury film. Westmoreland lays on the ‘colour’ pretty thickly, but manages to avoid caricature.
It’s a superior entertainment, focusing on one of the few writers whose life lends itself to such treatment.
The perennial problem with movies about writers and artists is that all the drama is confined to their work. A large part of their lives is spent alone in a room, in solitary communion with a manuscript or a canvas. Colette was one of the tiny minority – a minority of one? – that felt the urge to disport herself semi-naked on stage. Her famous ‘immorality’ was fuelled by her exhibitionism, and by her extraordinary candour in sexual matters, which she discussed with a frankness that was virtually unique outside of mere pornography.
Colette’s embrace of eros gave her a broad, popular appeal, but her style and grace as a writer ensured that her books were viewed as literature. Can we see her in Keira Knightley? Although she throws herself into the role, Knightley is a quintessentially English actress playing a quintessentially French character. It’s a bit like getting Zhang Ziyi to play a Japanese geisha – it never rings true. It would have been a great part for a young Isabelle Huppert.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Written by Richard Glatzer, Was Westmoreland, Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Denise Gough, Eleanor Tomlinson, Aiysha Hart, Al Weaver
UK/USA, rated M, 111 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 December, 2018