(2018) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Sloan Thompson, Arabella Weir, Máté Haumann, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Virág Bárány, Dickie Beau, Kylie Watt, Janine Harouni, Jake Graf, Joe Geary, Rebecca Root, Julian Wadham, Eleanor Tomlinson, Polina Litvak, István Gyurity, Karen Gagnon, Alexandra Szucs. Directed by Wash Westmoreland
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who went by her last name as a pen name (Knightley), was one of the most successful women in the history of French literature. She emerged from La Belle Epoque as a virtual rock star, and her stubborn refusal to live on any other terms but her own remain an inspiration to women – and men – even today.
Colette, a simple girl from the Burgundy countryside, ends up marrying Parisian roustabout Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) who is better known to Parisian society as Willy. He is known for biting and acerbic theater reviews, essays and short stories but the problem is that he hasn’t written a word of any of that. He has an army of writers who supply hi with the material which he passes off as his own.
The most talented of these is his wife and her Claudine novels take Paris by storm. Relegated to a background role by her egotistical husband, at first she is content to write her novels but as Willy’s gambling debts and lavish lifestyle take a toll on their finances, he begins to resort to outrageous measures to force his wife to meet publishing deadlines, such as locking her in a room. His serial infidelity also begins to upset her; she responds by doing the same thing he does – sleep with other women. She also prefers to dress like a man, which was illegal in France at the time and was quite the scandal.
Eventually she manages to win her independence from Willy but it isn’t easy and it isn’t without pain. The real Colette was an admirable woman and this screen version can only scratch the surface of who she was, Knightley’s fine performance to the contrary. Her chemistry with West palpably sizzles, and the two make one of the best dysfunctional couples you’re likely to see on the screen for some time.
Westmoreland has a keen eye and fills the screen with sumptuous scenes of lush countrysides, lavish salons and decadent theaters. There is a lot of sex in the movie – ah, those lusty French! – which to be honest begin to get in the way of the story. It’s a bit on the long side and some of the decadence could surely have been cut out; we get the picture, after all.
This is a pretty decent biography, but it doesn’t do her justice at the end of the day. There are some fine biographies of her extant and you would do better to pick up one of those. It’s not really Westmoreland’s fault; a movie can only do so much justice to a life in just under two hours. Still, it is dazzling to look at and not just because of Knightley’s lustrous beauty.
REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, both exteriors and interiors.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really do justice to the subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film to be directed solely by Westmoreland, who until then had always co-directed with his partner Richard Glatzer, who died of Charcot’s disease in 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: A Star is Born (2018)