Visually delightful, deliciously funny and delectably bawdy, “Colette” earns Keira Knightley official status as queen of the period film. Her radiant performance as Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (1873-1954), the mercurial French novelist, actress and sexual adventurer, gives that passionate life and storied career a distinctly individual reading.
Not many could pull off a role as a great writer with a cultish fan base who is also an authentic feminist hero, yet Knightley est magnifique. Her story begins as a young girl being courted by a prosperous older gentleman visiting her verdant countryside, even though he is basically the last man on Earth she would ever want to marry. Nevertheless, they fall deeply, mutually in erotically charged love. It’s a setup Knightley played expertly opposite Matthew Macfadyen in 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and here she does it equally well with Dominic West.
Her unlikely husband to be is Henry Gauthier-Villara, a Parisian toff and small-scale publishing entrepreneur who matches her sharp, fast wit like an ideal fencing partner. He commands a tiny crew of writers to ghostwrite stories from ideas he flings their way, printing them under his pen name, Willy.
While Willy’s apartment and business headquarters is palatial compared with her family’s rural home, and his friends are upper-crust, his finances ride the razor’s edge of disaster. When his hired hands can’t produce new copy fast enough to meet his luxury bills and gambling debts, he recruits his silver-tongued new bride to turn her memories of country life into a slim novel.
Drawing observations from her own life rather than creating characters to carry out abstract themes of redemption and enlightenment, she effectively reinvents the novel and becomes the most important woman in France’s literary history. In short order “Claudine,” her semi-autobiographical first effort, sweeps Belle Époque Paris like wildfire. With Willy claiming authorship because female writers “don’t sell,” Colette modestly acts as his silent partner. At least until her urge for independence and recognition takes root.
This summary may sound like the blueprint for a film about recriminations between an unhappy married couple. But through most of the film Colette and Willy adore each other, and so do we.
Willy is a fraud, but a successful scoundrel, the business brain of the partnership. Colette is a remarkable new talent fumbling her way along through a series of profitable sequels, but maybe she’s really a stage performer at heart. They’re an odd, flawed match, but each needs and loves the other, and director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”) keeps the emotional landscape winningly upbeat.
Westmoreland knows when and how to be serious without being solemn. That gives a poetic glow to Colette’s final speech, a fiery, empowered denunciation of Willy’s patriarchal instincts. He also knows how to represent the pretentious Paris society of more than a century ago, making a wicked joke out of a well-dressed, top-hatted man of the world passing gas.
There’s a lot of farce in the couple’s sex lives, whether they’re together, apart, or in a ménage à trois. Colette discovers in Paris exciting things that she never knew on the farm.
Hard to shock and no enemy of the publicity that a good scandal can provide, Willy, who is routinely unfaithful himself, largely cheers her on through a series of taboo-breaking explorations with women. It’s handled with intelligence and understanding as Colette wonders whether her heart controls her body, vice versa, or something more difficult to categorize. The one act that he and she forbid from each other is lying, which still happens in amusing detail.
This film, which follows Colette through the halfway point of her life, almost begs for a sequel. It is well crafted in every detail — strong direction, alluring performances, sharp comic timing, chic costumes and a cunning balance of late-19th-century settings and thoroughly contemporary social ideas. Knightley is worth the price of admission on her own, a compelling actress seemingly possessed by the woman she portrays.
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★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for some sexuality/nudity.