Denise Gough on Toxic and Progressive Masculinity at Toronto Film Festival

The acclaimed film director Wash Westmoreland presented his feature film Colette at the Toronto Film Festival. The film stars Keira Knightley (Colette), Dominic West (Willy) and Denise Gough (Missy) as main protagonists. Ikon London Magazine spoke to Denise Gough about masculinity at the Toronto Premiere.

The film is a biopic following the life of French writer Colette who was behind the series of bestsellers Claudine. Colette was ‘pushed by her husband’ and by the French laws at the time to write novels under his name. Upon their success, Colette fights to make her talents known.

Mathilde ‘Missy’ de Morny

Denise Gough at the premiere of Colette at Tornoto Film Festival © Joe Alvarez

Denise Gough © Joe Alvarez

In the latest film by Wash Westmoreland, Denise Gough is playing the role of Missy. In Denise’s own words: “Matilda was a French noblewoman who was one of the first women to present herself as a man. So, she was wearing trousers, but it was illegal for women to wear trousers. She was also in a seven-year relationship with Colette. And she was one of the people, in fact, I think the main person who encouraged Colette to own her work and to step into her power.”Mathilde de Morny Denise Gough Colette

In real life, her extravagant conduct made her a celebrity of the Belle Époque and despite her 1881 marriage to the known homosexual Jacques Godart, 6th Marquis de Belbeuf – whom she divorced in 1903 – she was open about her sexual preference was for women. Though lesbian love was then ‘fashionable’ in certain circles, she was still attacked for this, especially due to her very masculine dress and attitude. At this time a woman wearing trousers could still scandalise even if she had been legally authorised to do so, as in the case of Rosa Bonheur (who sought police permission to wear trousers to make it easier for her to paint in the countryside). Mathilde wore a full three-piece suit (then forbidden to women), wore her hair short, and smoked a cigar.

From the summer of 1906 onwards, she lived with Colette quite openly. On 3 January 1907 Mathilde and Colette put on a pantomime entitled Rêve d’Égypte (‘Dream of Egypt’) at the Moulin Rouge, in which Mathilde caused a scandal by playing an Egyptologist during a simulated lesbian love scene – a kiss between them almost caused a riot and the production was stopped by the prefect of police Louis Lépine. From then on they could no longer live together openly, though the relationship lasted until 1912.

Denise Gough: progressive masculinity VS toxic masculinity

Speaking about what made Missy special for Colette, Denise shared her thoughts with Ikon London Magazine.

“I think in the film you can see that Willy is the definition of toxic masculinity, you know, so a man who owns his woman, takes credit for her work. And then what you have in Missy is the opposite masculinity. Very progressive masculinity, very empowering. And also, very defined by the fact that she had to live as a woman for so long. And so, when she presented as a man, her man was amazing.”

Denise added: “So if I had a choice between a toxic man and progressive man, I go with the progressive man.”

What’s up next for Denise Gough

Speaking about her future plans, Denise admitted that she is enjoying her rest from theatre. “I just had two very intense plays for two years and I just want to take a break and being dressed nice and looked after.” It was obviously a nod to the fact that all historical costumes in Colette were vintage and not specially designed for the film. Knightley and Gough told us at the press conference how some costumes were stained and were ‘falling apart on them’. Denise revealed she is more interested in film now and “will be back on stage in 2020.”

On the night of the premiere, Denise looked great in her salmon pink gown by Gabriella Hearst. “It feels so good; I can’t stop touching it.”

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Denise Gough at the premiere of Colette at Tornoto Film Festival © Joe Alvarez

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