Taking a few liberties with the Libertine life and times of celebrated French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, “Colette” is a sumptuous and sensual but occasionally aimless and indulgent biopic that’s perhaps a little too interested in signposting the contemporary resonances than in providing a wider historical context to its subject’s life.
After marrying the famous Parisian man of letters Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), known commonly as ‘Willy’, (Dominic West), Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) moves from her rural childhood home to the artistic and intellectual hotbed of Paris. Circumstances conspire to compel Colette ghost-write for Willy and she pens a semi-autobiographical novel which becomes a literary and cultural sensation. But success breeds jealousy and rivalry between Colette and Willy, as she seeks the recognition and freedom she deserves to explore her burgeoning interests in literature, fashion and sexuality.
Initially a little dry and stuffy, Knightley’s performance at first seems like nothing more than a reprise of her by-the-numbers ‘period drama’ performance but as Colette begins to test her boundaries and expand her horizons, so Keira Knightley too, comes alive, in an increasingly vivacious and firey performance, particularly when she’s wielding dialogue fashioned from Colette’s acid-tongued and oh-so-19th-Century-unladylike wit. In amidst the lavish production design and glorious costumery, it would be easy for a performance to disappear into the visuals but Knightley never once loses your attention. West, on the other hand, opts for a deliberately grandiose theatricality, tiptoeing a line which occasionally teeters on the very edge of pantomime.
Thematically it has a lot to say to present-day audiences, with the curious juxtaposition of the expected social strait-lacedness of the times masking a much more relaxed attitude to sex and sexuality sometimes seems like an inversion of the struggles of today although Colette’s frequent appearances eating an apple to foreshadow her gradually increasing embrace of a more sybaritic lifestyle seem particularly on the nose, even for a film as unconcerned with subtlety as this one.
The indulgence seeps from the characters’ lives and into the production itself with a jumbled structure and an inconsistent tone which swings from trenchant insight to overblown melodrama which occasionally undercuts the film’s stronger moments. It plays with the chronology of its subject’s lives at least as much as “Bohemian Rhapsody” did, and for the same reasons, but for “Colette”, less could have been infinitely more and stripped of the bustles and corsetry of the self-indulgent screenplay, this story of authors and editors could have been set free to fly.