Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the French author best known by her surname, led the sort of life (1873-1954) that could never be fully mythologized cinematically until today. A full account of the life and career of the LGBTQ and equal-rights icon – a scandalous figure in her time – would have been a shade too hot to handle. Now, however, Colette’s story can be told frankly, and that leads us to Colette, starring Keira Knightley and a clutch of flamboyant character actors.
For all its high-gloss artistry and earnest intent, Colette works better as a lightly likable Sunday-matinee entertainment to be taken with Earl Grey tea and a gourmet chocolate bar in the soothing confines of the art house, rather than the tough-minded drama it ought to be.
In the title role as the wide-eyed country demoiselle from a conservative family in Saint-Sauveur in the Gironde, Knightley indulges her trademark willful girlishness with great vigor – even after Colette moves to Paris and marries author-promoter-notorious-lecher Willy Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a man in love with the sound of his own voice.
Colette’s passion is to write, in longhand with pen and ink, about the places she goes and the things she sees, in the character of an adventurous young woman named Claudine. Willy indulges his wife’s impulse as long as she allows him to publish her novels under his name. The fictions, replete with sexual innuendo, become best-sellers, and so Colette is obliged to keep cranking out the work. When she balks, Willy locks her in her room.
She longs to assert herself. It happens slowly, in increments, and with detours. Her frustration takes the form of a very slow burn, which gives director Wash Westmoreland and screenwriters Richard Glatzer and Rebecca Lenkiewicz ample time to tow the dissatisfied Colette through a carnival sideshow of Belle Époque debauchery.
Knightley has a face made for costumed dramatics. She and her prominent jaw line have negotiated Jane Austen (Pride & Prejudice), World War I-era Britain (Atonement), and the hectic dawn of psychotherapy (A Dangerous Method), all the while portraying women as reluctant catalysts. Colette presents a familiar scenario – a kept woman who rebels in private while subservient in public, even as her husband steals her glory.
This pulpy, gossipy tale deserves a nutty filmmaker, but we get something mousier and less threatening. Despite its riotous sinning and unpunished injustice, it has the tame flavor of a lunch date.
COLETTE ( 2 ) • Directed by Wash Westmoreland • Starring Keira Knightley, Eleanor Tomlinson, Fiona Shaw • Rated R • 111 min. • At Osio Theater Oct. 11.