When Matt and I were perusing the TIFF titles this year and came across Colette, we thought it must be this year’s Big Eyes (in which a husband, Christoph Waltz, takes credit for his brilliant wife’s, Amy Adams, paintings). We weren’t wrong, but we were giving Colette insufficient credit.
Colette (Keira Knightley) is a young country bumpkin who didn’t even know how to operate a snow-globe when she met her husband Willy (Dominic West), who dazzled her. He was a writer, worldly, enamoured with his own success and reputation. But the well is dry and they’re broke. To keep her husband happy and their household afloat, Colette sits down and writes a book about her own school girl experiences. Although Willy criticizes it for being too feminine and “full of adjectives” he signs his name to it and sends it off to be published. Of course it gets gobbled right up. Does Willy eat crow? He does not. He celebrates “his” success without a trace of irony and then gets mad at his wife for “implying” that she wrote it. Which, again, she did. This book does worlds better than any of his ever did so he’s eager to keep the gravy train going (imagine an actual gravy train! what a weird expression, especially since the carafe gravy is traditionally served in is called a boat). Anyway. He can’t help but lock her in a room until she produces another best-seller. It’s only logical! And she does. And when, oodles of success later, it begins to chafe and she suggests getting at least partial credit, her name alongside his, he bucks. Preposterous! Women writers don’t sell, he reminds her.
Living under those circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that she explores her options, by which I mean, sleeps with women. She is emboldened, solely by the women in her life, to assert herself. And though the laws and the norms of the day prevent her from claiming all that she may, they also inspire her to finally break free from the leash that kept her bound to a husband who viewed her as a meal ticket, their marriage as a business transaction. Even a long leash chafes.
Keira Knightley has earned herself the crown for period films long hence, but finally she has found one that is worthy of her – or, better stated, a film that can maximize her limited gifts has found her. She sparkles here, breaking outside her box to march up a hill of empowerment. Colette is familiar but not generic. It relishes the vibrancy of the period, but it also embraces its grittiness. The messaging here is anything but subtle but it doesn’t take a gentle hand to sit back and hear her roar.