There’s a “Masterpiece Theatre” quality to Walsh Westmoreland’s biographical film about French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, perhaps best-known among Americans today for writing the book that became the (loose) basis for the Lerner-Loewe musical “Gigi.” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, when it resembles a solid episode of that venerable PBS series.
The script by Westmoreland and the late Richard Glatzer covers the years between 1893, when Colette (Keira Knightley), a rather plain young girl from Burgundy, married Henri Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a considerably older man who was a friend of her father’s, and their divorce in 1910. A character known for his wit and oversized social persona, he used the pen name Willy, and given his expensive lifestyle in Paris (which included keeping a mistress), needed to publish a great deal of material to stay financially afloat. So he hired younger men to write for him on commission.
But when he fell behind paying those staffers and the collectors were literally repossessing the furniture, Henri thought of using Colette’s stories, drawn from her background, as a source. He worked her narratives of them into a novel called “Claudine,” which became more than a best-seller; it became the nineteenth-century equivalent of something that’s gone viral, inaugurating a cult of worshipful women and setting off an explosion of merchandise tie-ins; a stage adaptation soon followed. Naturally, the purported author—Willy—took all the credit.
Colette, who had by this time blossomed into a happy part of the high social circle in which her husband excelled, didn’t mind. The popularity of “Claudine” and its inevitable sequels brought financial security and constant attention. It also brought her to the attention of a well-to-do young woman, Georgie Raoul-Duval (Eleanor Tomlinson), the unhappy wife of a much older man, with whom she began a torrid relationship.
Henri, however, seized the opportunity to bed the woman himself, beginning the deterioration of their marriage as Colette became increasingly angry with Henri’s infidelity and abusive attitude toward her, and aware of her own talent, as well as her desire for both recognition and female companionship. When she met Mathilde de Morny, or Missy (Denise Gough), an aristocratic young lady who punctured the mores of the day by wearing men’s clothes—and with whom she developed an intense bond that resulted in their performing together on stage, creating a scandal—her drive for independence and self-expression became irresistible, especially after Willy betrayed her by selling off the rights to the “Claudine” books as his own fortunes collapsed.
Colette’s story, with its proto-feminist message, is especially appropriate to today and—because of its literary basis—makes Westmorland’s film a fine period companion piece to the recent Glenn Close picture “The Wife”: both deal with women whose husbands take advantage of the sexism of their eras to claim authorship of work written by their spouses. But it wouldn’t be unfair also to compare its narrative arc with that of “A Star Is Born,” replacing the Hollywood (or rock music) backgrounds in the various screen versions of that story with one founded in the nineteenth-century Parisian social and literary scene.
But while “The Wife” and “A Star Is Born” are fiction, “Colette” is based on historical fact, even if the makers treat it with some dramatic license, and it an era in which women are demanding access to positions across the board they’ve been denied forever, it comes across as the biography of a true trail-blazer. Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Of course, that would hardly be enough to recommend Westmoreland’s film it is weren’t a quality product, but like the best “Masterpiece Theatre” episodes, it is. Knightley craftily charts Colette’s transformation from naïve young country girl to big-city sophisticate, and West makes a perfect cad, switching from smarmily charming to brutish on a dime. Gough is sharply confident as the defiant Missy, and Tomlinson brings a cool sense of entitlement to a woman who, in the end, is outfoxed by both Colette and Willy. The large supporting cast is, as usual with British product, filled with outstanding character players, with Fiona Shaw standing out as Colette’s mother.
All the performers are elegantly costumed by Andrea Flesch, and Michael Carlin’s production design is equally sumptuous. The lush visual package is served up to a turn by cinematographer Gilles Nuttgens, while Lucia Zucchetti’s editing moves through the considerable chronological leaps without letting matters devolve into confusion, even if at some points the viewer might find the shifts a bit jarring. Composer Thomas Adès contributes an evocative—and distinctive—score.
Both Colette and her later creation Gigi (that book wasn’t published until 1944) broke the social rules of their time, and though Westmoreland’s film about the former won’t come close to finding the popular success of Vincente Minnelli’s about the latter, it’s an intelligently written, finely appointed, expertly acted biographical drama in “Masterpiece Theatre” mode.