By Tracy Wang
‘Colette’ strikes full marks in costumes, score and performance from its all-star cast, but its story of a woman exploring and finally finding herself goes beyond the scale, and thus ‘Colette’ becomes more than a story of a famous female French writer in the 1900s, but a story of the suppression of women and how a woman fights back the system, and becomes the master of herself.
Based on the Frenchi Novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette’s life story, ‘Colette’ begins with a young country-girl Colette (Keira Knightley) who is deeply in love with Willy (Dominic West), a much older entrepreneur who earns a living by hiring a bunch of writers to produce works for the name Willy. Soon, they are married and move to Paris where it is a whole new world for Colette, and though they are very much in love with each other, their relationship is often tainted by the dominance of Willy and his unfaithful wanderings among women of Paris.
Frustrated by his unfaithfulness, Colette too starts to explore her own sexuality and begins an affair with an American heiress, but though their relationship seems to be saved for a short period of time, it is soon clear that Willy is too much of an authority figure as he forces her to write not one but many books centered on a country girl named Claudine. A huge literary success, the Claudine series become a household-known series, but Colette’s maturity now makes the life she had with Willy unsatisfactory. Ultimately a life story of how a girl comes to be a woman who finds her own ways in life in Paris, ‘Colette’ asks us and Colette the question of whether it is enough to be always under a husband’s shadow.
After Glenn Close’s beautiful performance in ‘The Wife’ in which she produces Nobel Prize worthy novels under her husband’s name, ‘Colette’ is a most wonderful addition to this topic of husbands taking credit of their wives’ works, but it also adds something else, something that puts the gender inequality of the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s on the table.
With the #metoo movement seeping into every crack of our lives, it seems almost ridiculous and yet right to have such a movie out. ‘Colette’ elegantly and wittily put a magnifying glass onto every little detail that involves their relationship. From the very beginning, we already get a sense of what a dominant and opinionated husband Willy is going to be from him unashamedly criticizing a play that Colette’s family is going to watch; from the clever script, we immediately catch the idea that Colette is truly a free-spirit who has a witty and biting tongue.
Though the movie as a whole can be difficult to watch at times (what with Willy being so unfair to the two sexes), it is ultimately illuminating in how Colette embraces her freedom and her identity and in how Knightley carries her character with grace and air. From the queen of period films, we get a country girl initially who is not afraid to express her passionate love for Willy, and then a woman who grows out of her young self.
Amidst the discussion of women embracing their own freedom and identities, ‘Colette’ is a perfect story and film that shines light on how a woman struggles but eventually finds who she really is. Young girls today as well as other groups of women will find Colette to be a deeply complex and moving character who just has the fire and grace to find her own voice.