20 Feb 2019

Review - Colette

From At The Movies, 7:33 pm on 20 February 2019

It’s a rule of thumb with filmed biographies of famous artists that writing, generally, is boring. 

It’s essentially watching someone sit at a desk, scribbling, tearing up pieces of paper, occasionally swearing.

Keira Knightley

Keira Knightley Photo: Supplied

So the story of a writer has to be about something more.  And goodness knows the film Colette has plenty to work with.

Colette stars Keira Knightley as naïve young country-girl Gabrielle Colette who meets and marries a successful writer called just “Willy”, played by Dominic West. 

I say “writer” but Willy was more a literary producer, running a Factory full of employees who did much of the actual writing.

Willy found himself frequently over-stretched, and one day he wondered whether his young wife’s entertaining stories of her school-days might augment the Factory’s output. 

He had no idea how successful they would be.

The stories of “Claudine” – based on Colette’s own life – were a phenomenon, particularly with a brand-new audience.  

Colette had cornered the market on young women, along the way virtually inventing the teenager.

A lot of the significance of Colette is when and where these events occurred.   Paris in the 1890s was the “Belle Epoque”, the centre of the civilized world, in art, in music, in theatre and in literature. 

And Willy and Colette were the glittering celebrities of the age.

Willy reveled in his bad-boy reputation, with neither marriage nor dependence on his wife’s writing stopping him having a string of affairs. 

So Colette decided to follow his example.

The woman who’s caught Colette’s eye is a Louisiana heiress called Georgie – played by Poldark’s Eleanor Tomlinson with an over-ripe American accent.

Colette defies the customs of the age by starting an affair with her, and later with another even more exotic paramour called Missy.

But Colette is becoming increasingly irked by her husband’s treatment of her work.  Willy claims to be shaping her raw material into best-sellers, but Colette is determined to prove that the books under his name are mostly all her own work.

At the height of this publishing “whodunit”, Colette turns off the literary tap, and changes careers.

She has dance lessons, then takes to the stage, in a series of very French one-act burlesques, with the bare minimum of clothes.

Keira Knightley embraces the role of Gabrielle Colette with enthusiasm, after a too-long string of rather ordinary recent films.  

Fans of Keira, including me, will welcome her return to form, even if the film itself is a little “so what?”

The real-life Colette was not just a fleeting celebrity, of course.  She became the most famous French woman writer ever – even if non-French speakers may struggle to name any of her works, apart from Gigi maybe.

The film Colette is, again, less a gripping tale and more a snapshot of a place and time. 

That’s the trouble with real life of course. It very rarely lends itself to a decent three-act structure, with an exciting chase at the appropriate time and a satisfying clinch at the fade-out. 

As Oscar Wilde put it: “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

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