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Posts Tagged ‘Denise Gough’

Perspective can be a curious thing. My good friend and occasional cinema companion Bella wanted to go the cinema: she wanted to see an inspiring tale of a woman standing up for her rights and independence, striking a blow against the manipulative patriarchy, and generally not taking any nonsense from anyone. I, on the other hand, quite fancied watching a slightly saucy and scandalous tale of louche goings-on with some proper nudity and girl-on-girl action. Well, as luck would have it, we both managed to get more or less what we wanted from exactly the same movie, in the form of Wash Westmoreland’s Colette – a true-ish story based on the life on one of those very famous and popular writers whom no-one seems to have heard of or actually reads any more.

The film opens in rural France in the 1890s (they don’t quite go the full chickens-in-the-street, but it’s all very picturesque), where we meet simple country girl Gabrielle Colette, played by Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley (yes, I know, Keira Knightley doing a costume drama – whatever next?). Gabrielle has managed to ensnare the eye of sophisticated man-about-Paris Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), who goes by the nickname and nom de plume Willy.

Willy and Gabrielle are married and she moves to the big city, where she initially struggles to adapt to the superficiality of belle epoque society and cope with Willy’s various amorous indiscretions. More serious problems soon arise, however, as the couple are always short of money. Willy sees himself as a sort of literary entrepreneur, treating his name as a brand, and employs various struggling young ghost-writers to produce short stories and reviews. Soon enough Gabrielle has been pressed into service as one of these contributors, producing a short novel based on her life in the country entitled Claudine at School.

After a bit of a polish from Willy, the novel becomes a massive success, but Gabrielle (now calling herself Colette) receives no credit, as it’s published under her husband’s name. Further books follow, mainly because Willy insists on it, but Colette finds herself growing resentful and wanting to become more of her own person, regardless of the conventions and mores of respectable French society…

So, obviously, some very good hats on display in this one. What, you want more insight than that? Hmmm. Well, I have to say that this is one of those supposedly based-on-fact films where the achievement and prominence of the subject is probably less of a factor in it having been made than the fact that someone like Keira Knightley was prepared to turn up and play them. This is a star vehicle for Knightley more than anything else, and a pretty good one. Which is another way of saying that I know very little about French literature beyond some of the lyrics to Les Mis, but I’ll happily give this kind of movie a chance.

Bella was asking me whether I actually liked Knightley as a performer or not, and my honest answer was that I can take her or leave her, normally. I have always been immune to the obscure charms of the Pirates movies, and her appearance in the stellar conflict prequels was so brief it barely counts. The temptation is to say that she always plays the same kind of part in the same kind of film, but looking at her filmography I can see that this isn’t strictly true – it’s a little tricky to envisage her turning up in a Marvel Studios film any time soon (then again, who knows), but she has done good work in films like Never Let Me Go, which are not the kind of thing you would expect. Colette, however, looks exactly like the kind of thing you would expect, at least to begin with.

That said, this is a costume drama made following the Unique Moment (perhaps I need to find a different way of referring to the current situation), so there is an obvious theme of the self-realisation of women and the general self-serving uselessness of men. The main thrust of the plot – talented woman writer goes unrecognised while her husband steals all the credit and plaudits – is, as you may already have noticed, rather similar to that of another movie currently doing the rounds this awards season. I have to say that Colette isn’t quite as interestingly subtle or ambiguous as that other movie, nor is it as well-played, but it makes up for this with a pacy, interesting story and by generally being very pleasant to look at.

The film is on a bit of a tightrope when it comes to being a proper, respectable biographical drama for a serious audience on the one hand, and luring in some more marginal punters with the inclusion of some tasteful bisexuality and people with their clothes off. Well, it’s always been the case that possessing a veneer of high culture will let you get away with murder. Colette turns out not to be so salacious as to scare any but the most skittish of horses and handles its more provocative content quite delicately – although there is a peculiar, farcical interlude during which both Colette and Willy are having an affair with the same married woman, which the film practically plays for laughs. How close your true-life movie should stick to truth is always a slightly contentious point, and I would say that this one is probably being a bit too selective on a couple of points: much is made of Colette’s relationship with the Marquise de Belbeuf, a noted transvestite (played in the film by Denise Gough), and the fact that this did not in fact endure much beyond the end of the period depicted here is omitted from the final ‘what happened next’ captions; her two subsequent marriages are likewise not mentioned. The presentation of Colette as a wholly modern figure and some kind of feminist and LGBT icon is arguably overstated.

Still, this is a nicely made and consistently engaging film, and one that I enjoyed; the performances are good, if not great, and the whole production is impressively mounted. It doesn’t manage to solve the problem of how to turn writing novels into an activity that works cinematically (Knightley complaining that it’s really hard work and leaves her with sore fingers doesn’t quite get to the heart of the creative process, if you ask me), but then this is a perennial problem that has defeated considerably more gifted artists than the people making Colette. In all other respects this is a classy, handsome film, telling an interesting and (in many ways) timely story.

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