The writer Henri Gauthier-Villars, better known by his nom de plume Willy, was in some ways the James Patterson of turn-of-the-century Paris. He was remarkably prolific and successful, in part because he had a factory of ghostwriters churning out novels by the bushel under his name—a brand that paid well, when it paid.
“Colette,” a barbed but breezy biopic from co-writer/director Wash Westmoreland, pivots on one of those times when it didn’t pay. Willy (Dominic West), an aristocratic philanderer and gambler whose appetites were often larger than his bank account, is looking at a future in arrears when he’s sparked by an idea: Why not enlist his new wife, a bright country girl named Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), to pen his next novel? She’s a fresh voice with a rustic past and an ear for exotic pastorals and kinky fantasias.
That book would become Claudine, and would inspire three sequels devoured by readers of all classes, ultimately becoming the sort of mass-market erotica that presaged novels like The Story of O. Of course, it was Willy, the books’ putative author, who would receive all the credit. “Colette” chronicles the true wordsmith’s complicated personal and professional life, in which her literary content was far from the only progressive—and transgressive—element.
In yet another example of parallel inspiration in Hollywood, “Colette” is the second movie about a man’s appropriation of a woman’s art in to be released in just three months. The former, a fiction tale called “The Wife,” set in the ‘90s, feels more urbane and is certainly more profane, with a far more unassuming heroine: Glenn Close’s Joan Castleman, who had been writing Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpieces under his husband’s aegis for decades.
Chief among the differences between these similar narratives is that Joan actively works to keep her secret just that. Colette strives to acknowledge her authorship, and Westmoreland frames his film around her journey toward that freedom, and away from her husband’s oppressive thumb.
Both films, however, paint a damning picture of a macho, patriarchal literary culture that didn’t change much between 1904 Paris and 1994 New York. In “Colette,” Willy believes wholeheartedly in double standards—that it’s understood that a writer of his worth and prestige can be allowed to flirt with other women, and then some. “It’s what men do,” he insists to Colette, when she spots him with a working woman. “We’re a slave to our urges!”
Part of Colette’s rebellion is to un-double the standard: to take a lover herself, which happens to be another woman. Or, in the film’s latter stages, a transgender man (Denise Gough). From fluidity in gender and sexual orientation to its early examples of polyamory, the relationship between Colette, Willy and their various partners is presented as an arrangement that was staggeringly ahead of its time.
The more these characters stray from their marital bed, the more their real lives blur with Claudine’s literary adventures, and vice versa—until Colette loses as much interest in the character as she does her husband.
Was Colette a great writer? Is Willy? Is James Patterson? In truth, Colette’s critical reputation on the page is modest, and Westmoreland doesn’t provide us with enough passages to judge for ourselves. Her backstory is more important than the stories in her pages, and she’s convincingly painted as a proto-revolutionist for women’s autonomy, a French Nora escaping her dollhouse.
Westmoreland directs like a Merchant-Ivory scholar, favoring painterly cinematography, the requisite sumptuous score, and aptly gilded production design indicative of upper-class decadence. The production’s best detail is the live bejeweled turtle propped like a sculpture at a house party, which Colette would prefer to liberate.
Knightley’s performance is spot-on and relatable, but it’s West’s embodiment of Willy that is the film’s most bedeviling aspect. Willy is a bastardly avatar of male privilege—a creative and psychic vampire subsisting on the gifts of others, and then exploiting them. But West, with plenty of help from the screenwriters, infuses Willy with wit and even likeability, from his description of the Eiffel Tower, then in construction, as “a giant erection in the heart of the capital” to his quip following an untimely expelling of gas: “It’s intimacy in all its savage abandon, my darling.”
It would be easy to dismiss Willy as an irredeemable monster, but even in a film well suited for our zeitgeist, Westmoreland ensures both spouses live in three dimensions. As both of them would likely agree, that’s good writing.
“Colette” opens Friday, Oct. 12 at Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, Cinepolis Luxury Cinemas in Jupiter, and O Cinema in Miami Beach.