Movie Review: Colette

With the awards season over for another year, we can finally focus our attention on the 2019 releases, except here in Hong Kong where we’re still getting the 2018 films — including more than a few award winners — still showing up on our cinema screens. One of those films from last year is COLETTE, which looks at a 12-year period in the life of French novelist, actress, mime, trendsetter and woman who was game to try just about anything, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette.

The film begins with a teenage Gabrielle (Keira Knightley, COLLATERAL BEAUTY; THE IMITATION GAME; BEGIN AGAIN) living in the rural Burgundy town of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye along with her parents. Literary entrepreneur Henry Gauthier-Villas (Dominic West, TOMB RAIDER (2018); TV’s THE AFFAIR), who is an old friend of the family, takes a shine to the girl and she to him, and before long they are married and living in Paris. Gauthier-Villas, who is known by the mononym “Willy”, runs a literary factory employing ghostwriters to produce fiction under his name. It’s not the most successful of businesses until Gabrielle tries her hand at writing, penning the novel, “Claudine à l’école”, which is an immediate bestseller. Three more “Claudine” novels follow, each racier than the last, and it seems that Paris can’t get enough of her adventures. A successful stage adaptation follows and the couple couldn’t be happier. But it’s not to last as Willy and Gabrielle (who now goes by her own mononym, Colette) have both decided to have an open marriage — he hooking up with a young ingenue and she with the gender-bending Missy, the Marquise de Belbeuf (Denise Gough, JIMMY’S HALL). When the money runs out again, Colette decides it’s time publish under her own name.

It’s interesting that this story follows a similar arc (in broad brush strokes, of course) to the recent Glenn Close film, THE WIFE. Both take place in the literary world and both involve a woman writer who exists in the shadow of her successful husband until she decides it’s time to leave the bum and strike out on her own. (It’s worth noting that Colette was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. It makes me wonder if the writers of THE WIFE had the French author in mind when they wrote their screenplay.)

The film features some excellent performances, particularly from West who is delightfully caddish, but where the film falters is that it doesn’t quite capture Colette’s daring. Yes, we see her on stage showing some skin to the audience, and off stage having a wonderful time in bed with Missy and even earlier than that with Louisiana belle, Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson, TV’s POLDARK), but director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland (STILL ALICE) seems to have played it too safe given the characters involved. Perhaps he wanted to avoid having the film get an R rating (or Category III in Hong Kong). By going this route though, he served up a somewhat bland vichyssoise. This film needed more spice.

Don’t bother rushing out to see to see COLETTE. Instead, wait for it to come to a streaming service near you.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, March 1st at 8:30 am HK time!

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