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New movie reclaims voice of 'Colette'
by Danielle Solzman
2018-09-26

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Telling the story of French literary icon Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, Colette is a film that is appropriate for this new era following the start of the Times Up movement.

The film starts as Henri Gauthier-Villars, best known as Willy ( Dominic West ), gets engaged to Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette ( Keira Knightley ). Their marriage is a real depiction of the sexism, much less the feminism, of their time. Willy is an author, but when money troubles become too real, he revisits an old manuscript written by Colette. The resulting Claudine l'école becomes a huge hit. Three sequels would follow over the next three years. Claudine becomes popular and there's discussion of stage plays and film rights.

Feeling trapped in a marriage and without a voice, Colette starts to explore herself sexually. There's a fling with Southern belle Georgie Raoul-Duval ( Eleanor Tomlinson ), followed by a long-term relationship with Marquise de Belbeuf or "Missy" ( Denise Gough ). Missy dresses in a masculine manner. History describes Missy as a lesbian but Colette refers to Missy using the masculine pronouns, which may suggest that Missy should be viewed as a transgender man.

Right off the bat, the film drives into some critical commentary that could seemingly be discussed around the table today. As Willy offers opinions of theater, art, books, etc., he gets into a disagreement with his mother-in-law-to-be, Sido ( Fiona Shaw ). She suggests that she'll see it and make up her own mind, reminiscent of present-day situations wherein large numbers of white men offer their critical thoughts as women and other minorities struggle to break through.

Knightley handles the role brilliantly, taking on the character from ages 19-34. Colette was a woman who had no fear. For the era in which she lived, some of the things Colette did were uncommon for women, especially in public.

I do have to applaud director Wash Westmoreland for some of his casting decisions. While transgender talent are starting to become more common on screen, casting trans actors in cisgender roles is still rare. But Westmoreland did so anyway in Colette, by casting Jake Graf and Rebecca Root as Gaston De Caillavet and novelist Rachilde, respectively. Never mind the fact that this film is a period piece, but it's still a rare feat in films taking place in present day. This transgender film critic heartily approves!

The casting goes beyond this. Westmoreland seems to draw from the Hamilton playbook in other roles. The film has an Asian-British actor and a person of color cast as people who were white in real life. The casting in general seems to go with the vibe of who Colette was as a person.

The film ignores some of the typical tropes that audiences associate with period films. Cinematographer Giles Nuttgens tends to keep us focused in on Colette's every move as the camera follows her. First-time film composer Thomas Adès pays tribute to the innovative music of the era with his score.

A film such as Colette speaks to the current times, especially with its commentary on sexism. It speaks to the women working hard at lifting up their voice. After all, Colette wasn't allowed to have her voice. While her husband was getting all of the success, she was the one doing all the ghostwriting. It wasn't until after their failed marriage in which she starts getting the credit she rightfully deserved.


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