If there is one thing to take away from Wash Westmoreland‘s Colette, a straightforward, elegantly framed perspective on one of France’s finest pens, and a woman that revolutionised literature – is that Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette made sure she had fun.
Keira Knightley gives us a lively, centered portrait of the writer in her formative Paris years, circa fin de siecle, fresh out of the countryside, dowry-less, but with a supportive mum (Fiona Shaw, lending substance to style), married off to a much older man, a renowned libertine, whom she initially worships. The worldly, and casually morally corrupt peacock of a publisher Willy (a superbly contradictory Dominic West), a ‘literary entrepreneur’ who makes up for his young wife’s lack of inheritance by seizing her means of production – her talent, along with her personality, adding her to his stable of ghostwriters. Simultaneously sowing seeds of doubt and skimming all the cream off top. The markings of a true predator/parasite.
The one good thing about Willy, and the good thing about life, itself, is that all this merciless mercantilism came with a network that was Gabrielle’s for the taking, as soon as she removed herself from victim mode and established her own identity. A cornucopia of cosmopolitan beau monde (and demi-monde) at her disposal, and some of them even friendly, recognising a fellow traveler, and aiding her quest to be set free.
Colette’s enduring love affair and theatrical artistic collaboration with Mathilde de Morny aka Missy (a charismatic Denise Gough), and the latter’s singular belief in maintaining her authenticity, taking on both the fame and the fury of stepping out in men’s clothes at a time when women were still in corsets, steeled the writer to break off her own chains and falsities.
Equally, a true gift gives you tenacity. It’s a well that never dries. This is why even though she was creatively exploited i.e. locked in room and forced to write under another person’s byline, Colette could continue producing after her marital incarceration ceased. Her art was her proof. Her life – her source of inspiration.
She was on fire until the very end of her days, and she lived long, blessing us with that rare example of an artist that did not allow the world to shut her down. It seems that a wild spirit is crucial when it comes to survival, particularly if one has the sensitivity to be an artist – and the vulnerability necessary to be able to create.
Remaining untamed is ultimate protection.