When a film includes feminism, queer expression, independence, and authority over one’s intellectual property, it may be something to pay attention to. And, with Colette, you get all of those things and more.
Colette, based on true events, is the story of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. In the role is Keira Knightley, who is tasked with delivering a performance which includes emotional betrayal, righteous indignation, and discovery.
Eventually assuming the name Colette, the novelist starts life as a country girl, with no knowledge or awareness of what Paris and city life is like. At a young age, she falls in love with a man named Willy (Dominic West). They marry and move to the city. As it turns out, Willy is a novelist himself, to some degree. More accurately, Willy has a team of ghostwriters and the works they write are published under his name.
While at first helping to compose his letters, Colette discovers she has a knack for writing. But she is quickly dismissed by her husband because her tone is too feminine and it wouldn’t be read by Willy’s regular readers. When faced with bankruptcy, piling bills, and a propensity for gambling and infidelity, Willy decides that Colette’s writing will be published under his brand as a last-ditch effort. To his surprise, Colette’s first story, Claudine at School, is an instant hit and takes Paris by storm. It surpasses anything he ever wrote or published in the past.
Over time, Colette must grapple with the fact that these stories aren’t in her name and that Willy gets all the praise and credit. So, she sets out to make a name for herself, while keeping this secret.
The film continues as Colette’s relationship with Willy changes and she starts meeting new people, and involving herself with affairs of her own. She discovers a new identity for herself and stars presenting herself as androgynous. And, to fill time, Colette takes up dance, stage performance, and mime.
Worth noting is the film’s depiction of Colette’s relationship with Missy (Denise Gough), a stoic individual who quickly takes an interest in Colette. It’s mentioned in the film that Missy prefers to be called he, as opposed to she, which suggests an expression of transsexualism, which would be significant in early 20th century Paris. However, the historical accuracy in representing the real-life Mathilde de Morny is not so clear and it would be unfair to simply say that Missy was trans.
No matter how Missy would be labeled, or how the title character presents herself, Colette is still an expression of queer identity and feminism in a time when women simply weren’t afforded the rights they deserved. A story such as this is of profound importance and serves as an assertive reminder of the struggles women faced a century ago, in many different ways.
Colette is a quiet, yet powerful, contender as we enter yet another awards season.