Colette, or the Queer in Belle Époque

The queerest, most marketably feminist costume drama since The Handmaiden, Colette tells, in a similar fashion to earlier period biopics of great female artists Coco Before Chanel or Frida, part of the life story of French Belle Époque novelist Gabrielle Colette when her husband published her wildly popular Claudine novels under his own pen name.

The film itself, directed by Wash Westmoreland, one half of the team with whom Julianne Moore won an Oscar for Still Alice, errs too often on the side of conventionality but still manages to produce some striking sequences especially when some diegetic music strikes up. Several scenes show characters in the throes of an act of transformative performance of some kind, and these are realised with subtly uncanny beauty and strangeness in amongst the costumed formality. There’s a conversation between Colette and her mother (Fiona Shaw, terrific) about ants that I really enjoyed but mostly the script is a little flat and characterless, relying mostly on the tried and true tropes of the genre.

Thankfully the character is brought by the performances, as mentioned Shaw is great in a small role as Colette’s quietly loving mother, Dominic West is sometimes a little too flat in the emotional scenes as the headmasterly spouse but a few scenes, like when he gets to lead a Can-Can, allow him to fill the screen and he plays the limelight hog well. The film treads a narrow path with his character, keeping both his charm and permissiveness but also his ego and controlling nature and it occasionally resists too strongly the temptation to make him more sympathetically complex. Denise Gough plays Colette’s transgender lover Missy with dignified sincerity, coolly indifferent to the scandal she innately causes and Eleanor Tomlinson and Aiysha Ward are equally fabulously sexy as two further points in the various sexual triangles Colette and her husband Willy drift through. But it is Knightley who easily stands out, I’ve never personally known her to be bad in anything and she’s terrific in this, showing off her usual tender sensibility and humour although with a real flash of sexiness and the combination is utterly charming. It’s a surprisingly physical role, as Colette moved into sensuous cat-like expressive dance in her later career and Knightley carries her sprightly energy throughout her transition from a wild country girl to a rapturously odd libertine. Colette gives Knightley her most challenging role since A Dangerous Method and she responds with her best performance since Pride and Prejudice.

Although it retreads much of the territory that was walked more confidently by last year’s The Wife, Colette has enough of the same charisma and intellectual sensitivity and adds a touch of its own French bodice ripping naughtiness to be every bit as entertaining.

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