Book and Movie Reviews

Colette (2018)

dir. Wash Westmoreland

February 7, 2019.Beth.1 Like.0 Comments
The movie only focuses on Colette as a young woman under her husband’s thumb, the books she wrote that he took credit for, and the brief anticipation of what she would become.

This review contains spoilers

Colette is a biographical drama film based upon the life of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a famous French novelist and actress, known for her scandalous behaviour in Paris. The movie follows Colette after her marriage to “Willy” a famous writer. He moves her from her idealistic countryside home to the fast paced, outrageous Paris, introducing her to interesting and flamboyant people. At first she struggles to fit in, finding herself outmoded and naïve and soon growing furious at Willy’s affairs and absences. Soon after their reconciliation, he convinces her to join his ghost writers. Colette writes the first of the Claudine books about a sexually expressive and mischievous young woman at school, based upon her own memories and experiences.

As the book grows in popularity, so does Willy’s desire for Colette to write more. He takes to locking her in a room until she has pages written for him. The books become adapted for the stage and Claudine is seen everywhere as girls dress like her and cut their hair in a daring bob. Colette begins to change as well, becoming bolder and more sexual, dressing in trousers and suits which was illegal at the time, and begins having affairs with women. One of her partners, Mathilde de Morny, known as Missy, states “But seriously, you’ve done something important. You’ve invented a type”.

When Colette asks to have her name on the books, Willy refuses saying women writers don’t sell. From there Colette begins to do what she likes, performing in a music hall and refusing to write for Willy. It is the final straw when he sells the rights to Claudine, with Colette saying “.You killed our child…” Colette leaves and Willy asks his assistant to burn the original manuscripts to destroy any evidence that Colette was the true author. The final scenes show Colette finding an exercise book and beginning to write again after a two year absence.

I’m not sure how I feel about this movie. I don’t want to watch it again, but on the other hand I wouldn’t call it bad. Keira Knightly as Colette is, as always, wonderful. Her performance is a highlight of the movie, perfectly encapsulating a naïve young woman growing into herself. I didn’t like much else though.

I mostly found this movie tedious and dreary. Betrayals, lies and fights between Collette and Willy did not make for an entertaining watch; but then often the stories of female artists in the 1800-1900 were tedious and dreary, a slog through a life of no recognition and being taken advantage of by the ones they loved and who they thought loved them. At one point, Collette says to Willy “I am the real Claudine. Everything I thought and felt went into those books. They were me. My childhood, my memories, my opinions. Everything.” For Willy though, the books are as much a commodity to make money for him as his wife is.

Colette and Willy’s relationship changes throughout the movie, showing the increased and then waning power he holds over her. 14 years her senior, he begins as her teacher and guide through a Paris she knows nothing about. As Colette grows up, Willy appears more childlike. A few scenes encapsulate this dynamic well, such as Willy dancing on the table while Colette watches on, posture indolent and indulgent of his madcap moves. Another was the two of them on a tandem bike, Willy lifting his legs and whooping with glee as Colette continues to peddle behind him, keeping them steady. This is shown the most clearly when their relationship ends. Colette tells him “You found me when I knew nothing. You moulded me to your own designs, to your desires. And you thought that I could never break free. Well, you’re wrong. Claudine is dead now. She’s gone. You betrayed her. And I, I have outgrown her.” She says goodbye and leaves even as he is shouting that he forbids her. She is no longer the woman he can lock in a room.

Nature is a recurring theme throughout the movie, a symbol of Colette’s growth. Each major turning point in her life is represented some way in nature. During her courtship with Willy she runs through the woods to meet him for a sexual affair, her first major fight with him finds her in the garden with her mother, discussing how to rid the tomatoes of the ants that are feasting on the sweetness. When Willy buys her the country home she is in her garden planting seedlings, representing a fresh start and the beginnings of her deciding who she wants to be. Her first walk with Missy where Missy’s identity is discussed, is through tall trees that are established and unable to be uprooted like Missy’s confidence in himself.

Another recurring visual theme is theme is the exercise books Collette writes her novels in. The real Colette says in her introduction of the 1956 edition of Claudine I was recovering from a long and serious illness which had left my mind and body lazy. But, having found at a stationers some exercise-books like the ones I had at school and bought them again, their cream-laid pages, ruled in grey, with red margins, their black linen spines and their covers bearing a medallion and an ornate title Le Calligraphe gave my fingers back a kind of itch … for the passivity of a set task.”1 In the movie, her first one is gifted to her by Willy and becomes a symbol of freedom and self-expression where she can write whatever she wants. When he locks her in the study forcing her to write, the camera spirals around to it as she circles, coming to open it and write with almost desperation. The final scenes show her finding one in her trunk, opening the blank pages almost reverentially to write after a two year absence. In the movie Colette is always shown with an empty notebook, while Willy always has the filled ones, emphasising that she writes her own story and he is merely a reader left to make notes in the margins.


One thing I wish the movie had done was make the outlandish bits visually extravagant. Colette’s scandalous nature was such a huge part of her but it blended in to the rest of the story. The Saloon, for example, was her first foray into the absurd, and yet it was shot in the way the countryside scenes were. The Pantomime looked ordinary, even dirty and unpleasant, which it might have been at the time but didn’t give the viewer any understanding as to why Colette would choose that life. I would have liked it to be more magical and amazing, creating a clearer show of Colette’s awakening and reducing some of the “sameness” of the movie.

Another issue I had with the movie was that the real Colette was considered to be the leading French women novelist from the mid-twenties until her death in 1954. The movie only focuses on her as a young woman under her husband’s thumb, the books she wrote that he took credit for, and the brief anticipation of what she would become. Her later life included three divorces, living openly as a bisexual woman, an affair with her teenaged stepson, over thirty books published, getting a face lift in the twenties, received numerous literary awards and when she died she was the first woman in France to receive a State’s funeral. To focus the whole movie on her relationship with her first husband and how he stole the credit for her books seems like a disservice to a woman that continued to live and create long after he had left her life.

This movie is about the growth from girlhood to womanhood, the exploration of identity and sexuality, and the ways women during this time were silenced. I didn’t find this movie particularly enjoyable, but I did like the symbolism within. When reading up on Colette afterwards I found many inconsistencies between the real life woman and her fictional counterpart. Keira Knightly was amazing, and the story of women writers throughout history being silenced is an important, necessary one to be told. However in this case, I wish Colette’s story had been told in a more interesting way.

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