Yes, we’re in 2018, a year during which openness, matters of opinion and equality are the fundaments of our society. Or at least that’s what we make ourselves believe. How many times per day do you hear “women should wear heels”, “where’s that dress” or “a woman with short hair is too manly”? When it comes to some prejudices, we haven’t changed a bit since the 19th Century; the time during which the French novel Colette wants to break free from the male writers’ world. Director Wash Westmoreland (Still Alice, The Last of Robin Hood) brought her story to the big screen with the help of leading stars Keira Knightley and Dominic West. A story that wasn’t as important and as relevant as it today.
Born in the countryside of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye in France, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) is living a quiet and peaceful life with her parents. Despite having financial problems, she’s still making the best out of every moment while gardening and writing. Her calm and simple lifestyle is being turned completely upside down when an older man Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a.k.a Willy, is sweeping her off her feet by taking her to the glowing and vivid heart of Paris. Despite the big age gap and the disapproving looks from others, the couple decides to get married and to move in together. Once a successful writer, Willy is now struggling to make ends meet because of gambling and money problems. While writing failure after failure, he’s at his wits ends until he discovers the writing talents of his beloved and charming wife. He demands her to create his next novel and not long after that Claudine à l’école was born. Despite it being based on Colette’s life, the author on the book is her husband as, “he already made a name for himself and because a woman doesn’t belong in a writers’ world”. Soon the Claudine stories are being written in speed tempo and Willy is being praised all over France for ‘his’ work. It’s true that fame does change people and the first cracks in the relationship between him and Colette are becoming visible. While Willy is exploring his ‘own’ success, his sexual needs and his addictions, Colette is finally stepping up to fight for her own rights, words, and a surprising love. Will she be able to break free from the chains of her husband and will she (re)write history or will she be enslaved for the rest of her life in a miserable, restrained but conventional marriage?
What’s a conventional marriage anyway? Marriage between a man and woman? Maybe for some of us that’s it, but can you still call it a marriage when you’re unhappy, restricted and deprived? Don’t think so. Colette’s words aren’t the only thing that is controlled, but also her freedom and opportunities. In this film, she’s being described as someone ‘who’s being privileged to be on a very long leach of her husband but by the end of the day, it’s still a leach’ and we couldn’t have described it any better. She’s allowed to see other men and women, to go out and discover what she wants but she can’t write under her own name, can’t have any possessions and isn’t even allowed to wear trousers because that’s not what a woman is supposed to do. Now we’re back in present time. Why do women have to wear heels when they don’t like it? Because it’s expected of them. While do they need to feel guilty about looking too manly? Because society tells us to. If Colette teaches us one thing, it is that freedom isn’t as common as we think. Okay, before anyone thinks we’re feminist, men should also have the rights to wear what they want and to be whom they want to be, even when it’s considered too female for society.
Another thing we learned from Colette is that Knightley and West can form an incredible power couple. Knightley (The Imitation Game, Begin Again) represents beautifully the spirit of that time. At some moments as the naïve, innocent and pure Gabrielle but also as the ferocious, stubborn and resolute Colette, who’s determined to fight for what she wants and believes in. If we would ever be stuck in a relationship with a man like Willy, we would do anything to get the hell out of there. West (Money Monster, Testament of Youth) is thrilling, fascinating and sensational as the relentless, vicious and ruthless writer who’s literally using his wife for his own good.
While the story might seem too monotonous, this film never becomes boring. It’s been made smoothly by the combination of the wonderful and light cinematography and the intriguing movie score. Even if you’re not a fan of the stories about emancipation or liberation, then even you should check out this film. It grabs you from the first second and gives you a ride on a rollercoaster of emotions while showing what we could learn from history.
Liselotte Vanophem, Film and Celebrity Reporter – Just Celebrity Magazine