At first presenting itself as a tightly corseted “Big Eyes” set during the Belle Époque, “Colette” erupts into a fun, frothy, and unmistakably feminist biopic as soon as Keira Knightley and Dominic West start having sex with everyone in sight. Chronicling the strange, true story of turn-of-the-century Paris’ most popular writer, Wash Westmoreland’s handsomely mounted (ahem) costume drama may not share the revolutionary zeal of its namesake, but what it lacks in novelty it more than makes up for in diamond-encrusted turtles, frilly dresses worthy of Reynolds Woodcock, and the simple pleasures of a movie about a beautiful woman learning to chase her bliss.
The year is 1892, and Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley) is just another girl in the Burgundy countryside without a dowery. The locals refer to her as “the girl with the hair,” in part because of the epic braids on either side of her head, and in part because there doesn’t seem to be much else to define her. In truth, however, Colette is a bit more worldly than she seems (if only just a bit). Her parents might think she’s a virginal farm girl, but she sneaks out to the barn for steamy afternoon trysts with Henry Gauthier-Villars (West), a caddish author and publisher from the big city who churns out work from a factory of writers under the pen name “Willy.”
They marry, move to the City of Lights, and immediately get lost in the hedonistic thrum of libertine society. It’s a place where everything is permitted, as long as you have a penis. For Henry, Paris is a cobblestoned playground; he enjoys the fanciest salons of the day, and the most disreputable women of the night. For Colette, such pleasures are kept at a distance. She has nothing to do but stare out the window and clench her jaw, Knightley emoting through her teeth. But that all changes when she writes a frank, diaristic novel (a thinly veiled memoir, really) about a young girl named Claudine, and Henry — in dire financial straits — decides to publish it. “Women don’t sell,” he says, and so naturally they send it out under the Willy brand. The book blows up, Colette resents her lack of recognition, and it causes a rift in their marriage that runs far deeper than any of Henry’s affairs.
It all seems pretty predictable from our enlightened point of view, but just when the film appears to be yet another story about a man feeling threatened by the goose who lays his golden eggs, Colette breaks free. While “Colette” only covers a particular chapter of its subject’s incredible life, Westmoreland’s script — co-written by his late husband and creative partner Richard Glatzer (“Still Alice”) — wisely expedites Colette’s liberation, setting her loose at the start of the first act rather than at the end of the second. She and Henry meet a beautiful trophy wife from Louisiana (Eleanor Tomlinson), Colette spends the night with her, and they’re off the races. In a bid to reclaim the identity that Henry has denied her in public, Colette entitles herself to the same privileges her husband has always enjoyed in private.
It’s a fascinating dynamic, especially because the “Claudine” books made Colette into a veritable fashion icon; there isn’t a girl in Paris who doesn’t sport her proto-Annie Clark aesthetic (a shorn wave of hair and a prim black dress), and yet nobody knows who she really is. She is no one and everyone at the same time, and she can work with that. Knightley is exquisite during the second half of the film, free to be both Colette and Claudine, and — more importantly — just as free to be neither.
The actress makes a meal of her character’s defiant streak, crossing boundaries with a casual tut of her chin. This isn’t a righteous movie full of big speeches and soaring moments (its smirking temperament owes more to Henry than anyone else), but Knightley doesn’t need that stuff to make Colette feel like a trailblazer. There’s no agenda behind Colette’s decision to start dating a trans man named Mathilde de Morny (the riveting Denise Gough); she just sparks to her. Indeed, it’s precisely that lack of an agenda that certifies Colette’s freedom and prompts her to express herself through any number of other artforms (including modern dance and a regrettable night of performance art at the Moulin Rouge).
Henry is never far from the action, and Westmoreland resists casting him as the villain. He’s undoubtedly a terribly selfish scamp: “We’re the weaker sex!” he pleads after Colette catches him with a prostitute, “We don’t have your strength!” And the film keeps him around largely to prove him right, as his lack of fortitude damns his wife time and again. Fortunately, West keeps things light enough even to the end, the character always closer to stroking his beard than slapping his wife. He’s a silly man with serious appetites, a footnote who married a giant, and that’s just the right call for a movie that always tries to keep things as light and bubbly as a glass of champagne.
Shot like a postcard and lacquered with Thomas Adès’ evocative score, “Colette” is a costume drama for people who have yet to figure out that they love costume dramas. It’s fleet enough after that first act, and the squeezed plotting of its second half ensures the story never gets too long in the tooth. And if it does, so what? Once Colette realizes that she has the power to mold the world in her image, everything else is gravy.
“Colette” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Bleecker Street and 30West will release it later this year.