Visually delightful, deliciously funny and delectably bawdy, “Colette” earns Keira Knightley official status as queen of the period film. Her radiant performance as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), the mercurial French novelist, actress and sexual adventurer, gives that passionate life and storied career a distinctly individual reading.
Not many could pull off a role as a great writer with a cultish fan base who is also an authentic feminist hero, yet Knightley est magnifique. Her story begins as a young girl being courted by a prosperous older gentleman visiting her verdant countryside, even though he is basically the last man on Earth she would ever want to marry. Nevertheless, they fall deeply, mutually in erotically charged love. It’s a setup Knightley played expertly opposite Matthew Macfadyen in 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and here she does it equally well with Dominic West.
Her unlikely husband to be is Henry Gauthier-Villara, a Parisian toff and small-scale publishing entrepreneur who matches her sharp, fast wit like an ideal fencing partner. He commands a tiny crew of writers to ghostwrite stories from ideas he flings their way, printing them under his pen name, Willy.
While Willy’s apartment and business headquarters is palatial compared with her family’s rural home, and his friends are upper-crust, his finances ride the razor’s edge of disaster. When his hired hands can’t produce new copy fast enough to meet his luxury bills and gambling debts, he recruits his silver-tongued new bride to turn her memories of country life into a slim novel.
Drawing observations from her own life rather than creating characters to carry out abstract themes of redemption and enlightenment, she effectively reinvents the novel and becomes the most important woman in France’s literary history. In short order “Claudine,” her semi-autobiographical first effort, sweeps Belle Epoque Paris like wildfire. With Willy claiming authorship because female writers “don’t sell,” Colette modestly acts as his silent partner. At least until her urge for independence and recognition takes root.
This summary may sound like the blueprint for a film about recriminations between an unhappy married couple. But through most of the film Colette and Willy adore each other, and so do we.
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