Keira Knightley stars in this historical drama about the eponymous French novelist, whose provocative debut — falsely credited to her husband — becomes the toast of Paris, triggering yet another -yep you guessed it- battle for identity, equality, and self-determination at the dawn of the ‘feminist’ age.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, celebrated French writer and ‘gay icon’, was not your average early-20th-century woman. And Colette is not your average period drama. Like the subject herself, Wash Westmoreland’s film is energetic, fearless, and unapologetically feminist.
We meet Colette (Keira Knightley) as a teenage girl in the Burgundian countryside, infatuated with Willy (Dominic West), a charming but much older Parisian publisher. When she joins him in the city as his bride, Colette begins to turn heads. Ripe for adventure and unafraid of her desires, Colette challenges the social and gender conventions, and sexual taboos, of Belle Époque Paris. Willy is all in – at first. He even encourages Colette to write as one of his “factory” authors – or ghost writers, as we call them now – and the fruits of her labour, the Claudine books, quickly become a literary sensation. There’s only one problem: though Claudine is Colette, she also belongs to Willy. Whether they’re having sex, arguing about who they’re having sex with, or debating Colette’s writing, Knightley and West’s chemistry leaps off the screen, capturing the attraction and the scandal at the heart of a tumultuous relationship.
Last at the Festival with Still Alice, writing duo Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer, here working with writer Rebecca Lenkiewicz, capture Colette and her world with an intelligence, passion, and wit worthy of the writer herself. Though the film’s period details are exquisite, under Westmoreland’s elegant direction they are background to the woman at the centre of this story. Colette’s battle to have her voice heard in a patriarchal society is less relevant today than it was more than 100 years ago. She didn’t let them win; neither should we.
At the press conference, attended by Ikon London Magazine, director Wash Westmoreland, admitted that the film was written back in 2001 together with his late husband Richard. It took a long seventeen years to bring this project to life. Not least because of Keira Knightley’s other commitments – the filming was postponed by a year due to Keira’s small baby girl Edie who was just 1 year old when the cast got confirmed. Aged just two, Edie was an integral part of Keira’s life on set. Keira told Ikon Magazine: “I am so lucky to have such a wonderful husband who put his life on hold so that I can work. He travels with me and looks after Eddie while I am on set. And when he is not around, my mum will join me to look after my baby girl.” The actor added: “There is a saying: it takes a village to raise a child and it does but it also takes a village to keep woman at work. But if she should be at work and there are people to support her, then this will work.”
Ikon London Magazine spoke to the cast at the premiere of Colette at the Princes Wales Theatre. Denise Gough, who plays Colette’s lesbian partner – after separation with Willy – explained: ” I am playing Mathilde de Morny, a French noble woman. She was one of the first women to present herself as a man. She was wearing trousers when women were not allowed to wear trousers. She was also in 7-years relationship with Colette. She was the very person who encouraged Colette to take the ownership of her work and step in her power.”
Speaking of what made Missy special for Colette, the Irish actress commented: “Willy is like a very definition of toxic masculinity. What we have in Missy is the opposite masculinity. Very progressive, very empowering. And if I had a choice between a toxic man and a progressive one, I would choose the progressive one for sure.”
The London premiere of the film will take place at the London Film Festival. Admittedly, it will be the first time Keira Knightley’s mother -who is a big fan of Colette’s novels – will see the film. As to the director, Wash Westmoreland, his father “will be delighted to attend the London premiere.”The film-maker continued, “my father taught me a lot about film-making and it was with him that I started making my first home movies at the age of nine. So it will mean a world for him. He will travel especially from Liverpool for that.”
The film has strong chances to collect a few awards. Not least BAFTA’s due to the diversity on set. “We have so many LGBTQ representatives who took part, plus we have one black actor playing a character who historically was white and an Asian person who is also playing a white character.” The director admitted to the Ikon team that he wasn’t aware of the diversity targets set by BFI: “I just enjoyed breaking the rules. Since the character of Colette is so controversial for the early twentieth century, I decided it would be appropriate to not to follow the rules.”
Who was Colette
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Photo credit: Wikipedia
Colette (Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, 28 January 1873 – 3 August 1954) was a French novelist nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
In 1893 she married Henry Gauthier-Villars (1859–1931) or “Willy” a well-known author and publisher. Colette’s first four novels appeared under his name. They chart the coming of age of their heroine, Claudine, from an unconventional fifteen-year-old in a Burgundian village to the literary salons of turn-of-the-century Paris. (The four are published in English as Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine and Annie). The story they tell is semi-autobiographical, but not entirely. Most striking difference is that Claudine, unlike Colette, is motherless.
Willy, fourteen years older than his wife and one of the most notorious libertines in Paris, introduced Colette into avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles while engaging in sexual affairs and encouraging her own lesbian alliances.
Colette later said that she would never have become a writer if it had not been for Willy. Nevertheless, when Colette wished to have her name associated with her work as it became widely known, Willy resisted and “locked her in her room until she produced enough pages to suit him.”
Colette and Willy separated in 1906, although it was not until 1910 that the divorce became final. She had no access to the sizable earnings of the Claudine books – the copyright belonged to Willy – and until 1912 she followed a stage career in music halls across France, sometimes playing Claudine in sketches from her own novels, earning barely enough to survive and often hungry and unwell.
After the separation from Willy, Colette went to work in the music halls of Paris, under the wing of Mathilde de Morny, the Marquise de Belbeuf, known as Missy, with whom she became romantically involved. In 1907, the two performed together in a pantomime entitled Rêve d’Égypte at the Moulin Rouge. During this period, she embarked on a series of relationships with other women, notably with Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf (“Missy”), with whom she sometimes shared the stage. On January 3, 1907, an onstage kiss between Missy and Colette in a pantomime entitled Rêve d’Égypte caused a near-riot, and as a result, they were no longer able to live together openly, although their relationship continued for another five years.
In 1912 she married Henry de Jouvenel, the editor of Le Matin. A daughter, Colette de Jouvenel, nicknamed Bel-Gazou, was born in 1913. During the war, she devoted herself to journalism, but marriage allowed her to devote her time to writing.
The copyright issues
When Colette and Willy divorced in 1909, Colette was acknoledged as the “moral” author of the novels, while her husband was free to sell the publication rights and benefit from sales without her consent.
Notably, French copyright law remained unrevised until 1957. This meant that women couldn’t publish books under their names. But even the revised law of 1957 upheld the doctrine of the husband’s consent as necessary to publication by a married woman.
According to the director of Colette (2018), Wash Westmoreland, Colette was ultimately able to reclaim her property rights to the novels. But not before she engaged in numerous court cases.
“Colette won the initial court case after which only her name appeared on the Claudine books. Soon after that, Willy’s son appealed the decision and won. This meant that Claudine’s name had to appear next to Willy’s again. But not for long. Claudine then appealed again and won… again. And the original manuscripts played a large role in establishing the copyrights.”
The costumes of Colette were not created for the film, as is usual within the industry. According to the cast (Knightley and Goug), the costumes were all original. They admitted at the Toronto Film Festival press conference that “the costumes were falling apart on them” because they were all original.
The director of the film, Wash Westmoreland added that they even incorporated some blemishes in costumes in their scenes. “One scene is built around the toothpaste stains on the dress and these were the actual stains, which we decided to acknowledge in the film to create more credible characters and story”. Later, at the premiere, Denise Gough admitted that she is enjoying wearing ‘nice clothes’ again now that the film is over.