‘I was born in Montigny but I will not die there.’
Colette perfectly captures the desires of its protagonist; the kind of desires which push the story forward, exemplifying its key concern: the forging of a specific and defined female identity.
Director Wash Westmoreland, Captain of 2014’s Still Alice, uses Colette as an exploration of one collecting their identity as opposed to one seeing it crumble before them. Based on a true story, the real life Colette (known by her full name as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) was intent on authorial ambitions; the film itself makes the choice to cut Colette’s literary ambitions at the moment she prevails over her husband’s domineering wishes (the real life Colette would go on to write upwards of thirty novels). The film is such a success in part because it recognises the merit of struggle when it comes to artistic success, while at the same time managing to avoid the pitfalls of feminist biopics which can so often resort to overt martyrism. In fact, as Westmoreland informs us, the only bounds that constrain her are societal. Colette’s affair with her lover, Missy, who ‘[comported] herself as a man’ (according to Sisters of Salome) was frowned upon even in the more liberal society of 1920s Paris. Though the film appears to fall at times into caricature-ism, its characters become increasingly believable as the film unravels.
‘The film is such a success in part because it recognises the merit of struggle when it comes to artistic success, while at the same time managing to avoid the pitfalls of feminist biopics which can so often resort to overt martyrism’
The film really sings in its depiction of womanhood as a struggle for one’s identity; Colette’s writing itself, published under the moniker of Claudine, ends up being more ancillary to the film’s purposes. Colette herself is active in her pursuit of that which she desires, and it is Keira Knightley’s fantastic performance which facilitates this, depicting the progression from writer on the fringes to active participant in her own life. The agency provided by writing propels more than just activity, it grows into behaviour, with Colette conducting affairs and thriving in the Paris literary scene. It is thrilling to watch without once resorting to melodrama, though Colette’s life is portioned by the constraints of the (well-judged) run time, the window of her life upon which Westmoreland decides to focus is decidedly exciting, showing the birthing of an identity: ‘these are my memories, my experiences, my opinions,’ Colette insists, conducting a bourgeois life of scandal while cooking up a literary storm. It’s a surprise this story hasn’t been told before.
Westmoreland is able to maximise the potential for storytelling without being too overt about things, thematically unifying Colette’s subject matter with the story’s execution. There are several examples of men being used as vessels for ideas that overwhelm them, raising the film above your run-of-the-mill biopic and allowing it instead to breathe. The intellect of the audience is, thankfully, assumed. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette knew exactly what she wanted, and Colette itself is wise enough to get out of the way and let her tell her story.