The historical biopic is among the stateliest—and stalest—film genres.
So often these movies shamble stiffly like Wikipedia pages brought to artificial life; they soft-pedal wishful hagiography; they revel in prosthetic-enhanced performances that lapse into impersonations.
In the doomed effort to squeeze an entire lifetime into two hours, filmmakers tend to turn a complex existence into a series of epiphanies and predestined inevitabilities. It’s a cardinal sin of the historical biopic, one director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland smartly sidesteps in the mostly conventional but compelling Colette.
Westmoreland confines the action from the title character’s late girlhood in the French countryside to her ascension as a sexually and professionally independent artist in pre-World War Paris. It’s the literary equivalent of a superhero origin story.
Good thing, too, as French author and performer Colette’s career stretched through the Parisian Belle Époque to the golden age of Hollywood, when her best-known novel, Gigi, became a stage production starring a young Audrey Hepburn and, just a few years after Colette’s death, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film.
Keira Knightley stars in the title role. But before she emerges as the famous Colette, she’s Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, daughter of a modest family who marries Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a pseudo-intellectual blowhard who publishes ghost-written articles, reviews, and fiction under the pseudonym “Willy.” He also refers to himself frequently in the third person as “Willy,” which establishes his perfidy well before he hoards the accolades for a series of novels secretly written by his young socialite wife.
Colette’s four published novels about ingénue heroine Claudine created an instant sensation in Paris. They not only launched stage productions and a lucrative merchandising line, the character set the standard for the modern young French woman. That the stories were largely autobiographical made it all the more confounding when Willy claimed credit for inventing them.
Dominic West is all beard and bluster as Willy, whose jackassery is tempered just enough to keep him from tipping into outright villainy. He does recognize his wife’s brilliance, not to mention her sexual omnivorousness, which adds interesting layers of complexity to their fraught relationship.
West’s charm is crucial, but Colette is absolutely a showcase for Knightley. She gives a subtle performance that parlays her straight-lined beauty to shift, almost imperceptibly, from practical country girl to gender-flouting libertine. It’s not difficult at all to image an entire European city hinging on her every whim.
In its stodgier moments, Colette does have the whiff of a homework assignment. Just as often, though, it’s compellingly cinematic, especially in the ornate recreations of the Parisian high-culture scene.
And of course Colette is timely, with its themes of gender non-conformity and women seizing their due credit in the workplace and the art world. The script gets a bit didactic in its feminist intersectionality, but some clumsiness aside, the film deals thoughtfully and unfussily with the heroine’s complicated sexuality.
Westmoreland doesn’t execute the film with the kind of uncommon style that made Colette herself famous, but he is able to plausibly convey it—which is far more than most biopics are able to achieve.