image source / image description: Keira Knightley as French novelist Colette
Article by: Amal
Colette (2018) is a biographical drama telling the story of the French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, played by Keira Knightley. The film begins with Colette marrying a notorious literary Parisian known as Willy and, soon after becoming one of his ghostwriters, eventually writing the famous Claudine novels. Over the course of the film, Colette begins demanding more recognition for her writings as well as more freedom from Willy.
The domestic drama drives so much of the conflict between Colette and Willy impacting both her art and her relationships. From the beginning, it is pretty clear that Willy is not going to be faithful, as such Colette decides also open up her side of the marriage. One of the most refreshing aspects of Colette is how carefully it treats gender expression and queer relationships. As Colette embarks on relationships with other women she becomes more self-assured: her delicate dresses and long hair become more and more androgynous.
Knightley’s performance of this is infectious; as Colette quietly dismantles her performance of femininity, you can feel her growing confidence.
Colette plays with gender performance runs in direct contrast with the incredibly feminine series of novels that she writes for Willy. The Claudine books targeted at young women and film accurately recognises the importance of this. One character says, “you’ve done something important. All those young girls, you’ve given them a voice.”In this post #MeToo era, the silencing of women’s voices has become more apparent than ever. This is what Colette is all about, culminating to one final face-off between Colette and Willy where Colette fiercely fights for her voice and her recognition. In many biopics, it often feels like writers substitute nuance and complexity for an arousing Oscar bait speech which is supposed to give you goosebumps. Perhaps it is the relative recency of #MeToo, or maybe it is simply Keira Knightley’s magnificent performance: the final speech feels like a triumph for not just Colette but women.
This year is an excellent year for the female-led historical drama, with the wildly entertaining The Favourite (2018) and the intense Mary Queen of Scots (2018). Even if the women in the films were living in more overtly patriarchal times, they are all feminist films where the women are relegated to love interest. In fact, in all three of the movies, the men are kind of useless. As a film in 2019, Colette is remarkably timely; its story and Knightley’s performance show the greatness of female-led cinema and the importance of given women credit. Colette has now been immortalised in the film canon alongside a long list of men and that in itself is so important.