When Colette opens with an eligible gentleman calling on a spirited but dowry-less young woman whose mother hopes they’ll marry, you might get the sense that we’ve seen this Keira Knightley picture before. Minutes later, the 19th-century slow burn you’ve been settling in for goes up in smoke: The two hook up in a barn, and it’s clear that this biopic—inspired by the Nobel Prize–nominated French author of the same nom de plume—is a different breed of period piece altogether.
The marriage plot is resolved quickly, but Colette’s move to Paris with her now-husband Willy (Dominic West) brings fresh complications. The nature of Willy’s fame (and his finances, or lack thereof) comes to us as abruptly as it does to Colette herself: The man of letters is really a “literary entrepreneur” with a bankable name and a nose for the kind of scandal that sells, overseeing a “factory” of writers whose work he punches up and then publishes as his own. He burns through the money as quickly as it comes in, so that Colette finally puts pen to paper out of desperation—and quickly sets herself apart from Willy’s other “ghosts” with her fresh perspective and raw talent. Her thinly veiled memoir, embellished by a Sapphism that Willy elevates from subtext to text after Colette casually reveals her interest in women, goes to print as Claudine at School, with his name on the cover.
As Claudine takes Paris by storm—and finds a devout readership among young women—Colette lives first in her husband’s shadow and then in her own protagonist’s. The role the series comes to play as a proxy for her own life, and particularly her relationship with her husband, is one of the film’s neatest narrative tricks: We learn the outcomes of real confrontations as they’re being edited for use in the next Claudine. When Willy suggests a line of dialogue that would paint his fictional stand-in, Renaud, in a better light, Colette replies that she doesn’t think Claudine would believe him. Then, airily: “I’m planning on killing Renaud off in the next one.”
Her success also opens her up to those who can read between the lines, intuiting her authorship and, by extension, her sexuality: namely, the American heiress Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson), the charismatic actress Polaire (Aiysha Hart), and the reclusive Marquise de Belbeuf (Denise Gough).
Gough’s character, who flaunts the law by wearing trousers (and gets away with it by sharing a bloodline with Napoleon), personifies the film’s approach to LGBTQ history, and Colette’s own: In her novels, she ignored the sexual terminology of her day that might have made the characters who inhabited them more easily understood. The script cleanly sidesteps any strained coming-out conversations. We learn that de Belbeuf (ironically nicknamed “Missy”) uses male pronouns only when Colette pointedly corrects her husband on the subject.
Colette doesn’t pretend to have clear-cut answers about Missy’s identity—as one Colette biography concluded bluntly, “It is not clear whether Missy thought of herself as a lesbian or a man”—but neither does it ignore what the aristocrat’s insistence on male dress and later life as “Monsieur de Morny” might have meant to him. “Words are either masculine or feminine,” Willy says at one point (reminding us that this film should really have been in French)—but “there’s no word for someone like Missy.”
Refreshingly, Missy himself is untroubled by this. Presenting as he does feels natural, and his romance with Colette does, too. This deft approach to identity and sexuality, which leaves the door open for queer and trans viewers to see themselves in the characters without imposing ahistorical labels, offers a rare and welcome reminder that today’s LGBTQ community has a rich heritage of stories like these to be uncovered and celebrated. It also challenges any assumptions the viewer may have about progress as inherently linear—the sense that if things are bad now, there’s no way such a person could have found happiness then. For Colette, Missy, and the rest, their identities are facts of life, not ruinous revelations. The main thrust of the plot (and most of the angst) lies elsewhere. Without ignoring the reality of systemic oppression, Colette finds moments of joy and revels in them.
The script, co-written by director Wash Westmoreland; his late husband, Richard Glatzer; and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Disobedience), is fun, delightfully sharp, and at times surprisingly tender. Thanks to stellar performances from Knightley and Gough, Missy and Colette’s relationship feels lived-in and authentic. Colette and Georgie’s will-they-or-won’t-they energy is likewise palpable. Dominic West as Willy is compelling in his own right, but he doesn’t have quite the same chemistry with Knightley as she does with her other lovers—which poses something of a problem, given how much screen time he gets. The film knows from the outset that Willy is exploiting his wife’s talents and abusing her trust, but it still spends a while spinning its wheels, trying to redeem or at least complicate him. Once Colette (and Colette) realizes that the narrative of her life can and should be in her hands, it becomes the triumphant origin story we’ve been waiting for.