In the late Sixties in Paris, it was considered the height of chic to crop one’s hair like a rag doll, dress in primly buttoned blouses and high waisted trousers and float around the bookshops of the Latin Quarter engulfed in a pungent haze of Gauloises. The fashion icon we were following was no contemporary rock chick but a writer and theatre performer, who had died almost two decades previously at the age of 81.
To this day, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, daughter of a bourgeois family from the uninteresting town of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, two hours south of Paris, retains an irresistible allure and an elusive, androgynous exoticism that feels intensely of our time.
Wash Westmoreland’s biopic is a meltingly handsome affair, capturing both the seductive beauty of rural France and the erotic naughtiness of belle époque Paris. These contrasting perspectives are viewed through the eyes of Kiera Knightley’s initially naïve Colette and Dominic West’s swaggering Willy (full name Henri Gauthier-Villars), the philandering middle-aged wastrel who transforms her from teenage ingénue to sexual adventurer and literary phenomenon.
As always, the willowy Knightley is easy on the eye. She wears the stylish clothes and mannish hairstyle well, but is no longer young enough to convince as a breathy, pigtailed teenager. She is at her best when she abandons her familiar facial mannerisms and allows the character to take over. Her furious outburst when she realises that Willy has effectively killed their baby, by selling the rights of her best-selling Claudine novels for a paltry 5,000 francs, is bold and completely credible.
Though set at the turn of the last century, the storyline is surprisingly modern and utterly relevant to the Me Too campaign. West endows Willy with a queasily unsettling charm, bullying and cajoling his young spouse into writing the semi-autobiographical ripping yarns that finance their flashy lifestyle, while assuming all the credit for their success under his own by-line.
As he becomes more sexually needy, she becomes more sexually adventurous – for a brief period, they unknowingly share the body of a bored, beautiful American millionaire (Eleanor Tomlinson). As her social circle widens, it is not long before Colette is exchanging unsubtle, come hither glances with a variety of beauties, to the obvious excitement of her old roué of a husband.
Always open to the notion of a quick buck, he willingly indulges her aspirations to become a performance artiste and ruins himself financially in the process. But worse is in store for him when Colette falls genuinely in love with Missy (Denise Gough), an intriguing, cross-dressing actor , who will become her companion throughout her long life.
There are some exquisitely beautiful moments, including a wonderful and totally unexpected recreation of Gustave Caillebotte’s painting Raboteurs de parquet (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), which animates the bare-torsoed artisans sanding the wooden floor of the dilapidated country house bought by Willy as a gift to Colette – the perfect writer’s retreat.
The two big name central performances will inevitably sell this multi-layered film, but what remain etched in the mind are those glorious visual set pieces depicting the lushness of la France profonde and the decadence of demi-monde Parisian society, straight out of the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and Giovanni Boldini.