When watching stories about queers set before the invention of the horseless carriage; I prefer them to be unsubtle. Hence, Colette gets immeasurably more satisfying once its leads’ decide to cancel monogamy and just start fucking everyone. Keira Knightly plays the young bisexual wife of Dominic West’s publishing magnate: the man who inducts her into Parisian high society, cheats on her, and repeatedly steals credit for her work.
His is not a subtle character. West’s talent is sufficient to stop it going fully vampire, but mostly through his insertion of deeply seeded inadequacy. The type is obvious immediately, rich city fella interested in the inexperienced country girl. Both characters have been aged up by about ten years, but we get what they’re gesturing towards. At an early high society party, Knightly’s Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette finds herself drawn more to the plight of a jewel encrusted tortoise than any of the other guests. In the ride home he, ‘well, actually’s’ her about the fun of it — and why his unabashed horneyness towards another reveller is actually a good thing.
It isn’t, obviously, but the film argues it’s more because their relationship isn’t at that point yet. After they decide to open it up the two get along quite amiably. Of course, society dictates that such a situation not be allowed to last in our media, yet director Wash Westmoreland does his best to implicate the garbage man’s shit ass decisions as the root of the dysfunction. The wrinkle to being published by him is that he’ll nab both copyright and credit — books hit the shelves adorned with the single (apposite) inscription: ‘Willy’.
He jokes that his writers are slaves, labouring for the scraps he deigns to feed them. Later, he’ll lock his wife in her study until she’s produced pages sufficient for his satisfaction. Because she’s of course the actually talented one of the pair. After he trashes her first manuscript out of hand, a moment of financial insolvency forces a desperate publication. Claudine à l’école is an immediate sensation and Sidonie-Gabrielle , privately proud of her proud of her success, integrates into society; now as Colette.
For a story of an escape, from the stifling institute of marriage, from a shitty man, the film gives Colette very little agency of her own. Even her rebellion is seemingly orchestrated by those around her. It is Willy himself who encourages her on her first affair with a woman, then him who ruins it by chasing desperately after the same woman. When she toys with the idea of provocatively taking to the stage, he’s the one who pushes her on. We see time and again the productivity of their partnership, yet it comes at the cost of an incompletely shadowed lead.
Knightly is very charming here, but not much more. There’s moments at which she realises some wrong has been done her and will walk stridently to confront the perpetrator. The film at those moments kicks into overdrive — heavy-strings horror on the soundtrack and close ups of her angry-face. The film is on her side, pointedly so, yet does not wish to summon her totality. We are invited to feel neither the depths of pain nor ecstasy of her life. She is determined to be made ‘agreeable’.
Sigh. The film puts her in a suit at one point and her husband is outraged, a woman, in a suit? We get to have consequence free judgement on the man for his unwarranted critique of such a fresh look. This comes after Colette gets in with the Marquise de Belbeuf, a trans man (played, disappointingly as ever, by a cis woman). Yet he has his shit together better than anyone else around, he’s out there living his best life while everyone else engages in their petty squabbles. I’m here for it.
But not here for the way that it diminishes his identity by making his attractiveness as a partner an extension of his relationship to the feminine. Like, when our lead is narrating a letter when she calls him ‘a true gentle man’. Oh fuck off. We’re supposed to be impressed by this, what? The dull wordplay, the condescension masquerading as respect? Nah. I enjoy seeing old timey queer pulp, but this ain’t the good shit. Not when the text itself is being disrespectful, not when ignorant folks are having their wrong ass biases approved.
The film’s sop to this is casting two trans actors in cisgender bit parts. It is not a progressive move when you’re doing it to excuse how you’ve cast the third lead, and only cements the idea that — while we can be portrayed in media to be objects of cis curiosity or pity — those of us actually living are best kept invisible. It’s all in the last third too, which leaves a rather sour taste in one’s mouth. The rest of the joint is nothing but pure gloss, it shines well enough and is moderately charming. I think the two leads do good work.
It’s not something that I can endorse.
Colette is currently screening in UK cinemas.
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