'Colette' is a Great Biopic That Can Do Better

I’m not sure why it is that 2018 is turning out to be the year of awesome lesbian romances couched in stories that could’ve used a couple more rewrites (Lizzie, starring Chloë Sevigny and Kristen Stewart, being a prime example), but there you have it. Like a few other movies about queer love this year, Colette (dir. Wash Westmoreland) had a lot of good things going for it, with a few major drawbacks. The film is based on the life of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (played by Keira Knightley), the famous bisexual French novelist (most famous for her novel Gigi). It focuses on the early years of her career when she was a ghostwriter for her husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, or “Willy,” (played with gravity and maturity by Dominic West) a novelist and publisher in his own right. When her first novel, Claudine, proves wildly successful, her husband takes all the credit and begins demanding sequel after sequel from her while she tries to gain independence and strike out on her own. Additionally, Colette discovers that her husband is both a voracious spender and notorious for his numerous sexual exploits. She struggles to find a way to handle this, settling for exploring her bisexuality through a series of progressively more romantic queer affairs and by seizing independence in pursuing her interest in acting. These conflicts lead to the ultimate disillusionment and eventual dissolution of their marriage.

The film runs just under two hours, perhaps in part because they cut out all of the necessary exposition that establishes Colette’s character. The opening scenes take place in her family home in the countryside. In typical Keira Knightley-character fashion, we see Colette walking through fields and in gardens, her hair strategically mussed in long braids. Soon thereafter, Willy is introduced at a quiet family dinner where he pontificates about the drawbacks of Parisian theater, dominating any and all conversation. After another scene in which her parents establish that Colette has no dowry and that a marriage to Willy is unlikely (while the couple in question clandestinely has sex in a barn), we cut forward to them living together in Paris, apparently having been married several months before. How this happened, given her financial circumstances, is unclear. On top of that rather jarring logistical leap, Colette has begun writing Willy’s letters for him (we know because she’s shown hard at work at a desk with a pile of his mail), when neither his profession as a writer nor her skill for writing have been set up. These are the beginning of a series of time and logic jumps that make the film, while ultimately comprehensible, somewhat hard to engage with fully.

They set up the equally important fact of her bisexuality this way, in a conversation after a party where Willy, jealous, accuses her of flirting with a man. She coolly responds that he’s misunderstood because “it was the wife I found interesting.” Even though this is admittedly a great moment, there was no set up and the power of the line is undercut by the question: “When did this happen?” The film seems to get overwhelmed by the wealth of potential storylines inherent in a life as dynamic as Colette’s that it skimps on exposition while also sacrificing interesting plots in favor of a more linear narrative.  Rather than focus on her queerness or her feminism, the film eventually chooses to focus on Colette’s search for emancipation from her impromptu indentured servitude to her husband. Even though it does depict a number of passionate affairs she engages in (and does them some justice) as well as show how she carves out a place for herself among Paris’s queer theater community, these stories get sidelined to some degree. It’s this inability to elegantly depict the complexity and multifacetedness of her life that are the film’s major flaws.

Besides the lack of exposition and limited narrative scope that hobbles the whole movie to some degree, a lot of time gets spent showing all of the different ways Willy can be terrible at the expense of fully fleshing out the fascinating queer characters we see throughout the film. Colette’s first lover, a young southern belle named Georgie who is sleeping with both her and Willy separately, is reduced to the status of a “bitch” after Colette writes about their affair and she reasonably objects for fear of retribution by her husband. Missy (Denise Gough), Colette’s long-term partner during and after her marriage to Willy, is a fascinating figure; he’s an out, transgender man of independent wealth who somehow manages to live relatively freely in Paris, but he’s reduced to the “nice guy” alternative to Willy’s irresponsible, bullying lecher. It was still a delight to see these people depicted with compassion and grace, but a lot of opportunities were lost to develop Colette’s more positive relationships by spending so much time on her husband—although West gives a phenomenal performance that’s morbidly fascinating to watch.

Overall, the film is entertaining and engaging to the end with lots of winning moments and generally excellent performances by everyone in the cast. While there was clearly more to be done and the final product does have its problems, it was enjoyable to watch part of Colette’s fascinating story unfold.