Wash Westmoreland's "Colette" is a very British movie about a very French feminist icon. A handsome and lively period film, it's too timid to capture the ravenous appetites of the literary force that was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. But with Keira Knightley playing the prolific and trailblazing author, "Colette" has nimbly condensed an un-condensable life into a sprightly and self-evidently relevant biopic.
"My name is Claudine, I live in Montigny; I was born there in 1884; I shall probably not die there."
Those were the first lines in "Claudine à l'école," the 1900 coming-of-age novel that made the Burgundy-born Colette's fictional alter ego, Claudine, a sensation, as well as a highly lucrative industry. It was, however, published under the nom de plume of her husband ("Willy"), the rakish publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars (played by Dominic West in the film).
It would be years before Colette was writing under her own name, though once she did, she quickly established herself as, among many other things, one of France's greatest authors. She was nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature in 1948 and given a state funeral after her death, at the Palais-Royal, in 1954. Along the way, she blazed a relentlessly unconventional path through Belle Epoque Paris, leaving behind a litany of affairs (with men and women), scandals of all sorts (an on-stage kiss with a woman at the Moulin Rouge sparked a riot) and dozens of books, including 1944's "Gigi," written while her third husband was interned by the Nazis. To play its protagonist in a stage adaption, Colette found an unknown named Audrey Hepburn.
So, sure, try getting all that (and much more) into a movie. Westmoreland ("Still Alice"), along with co-writers Richard Glatzer (Westmoreland's late husband) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz, have judiciously opted to concentrate on Colette's early period married to Gauthier-Villars, when she wrote the first Claudine books. On the one hand, this focus gives "Colette" a timely dramatic arc of female empowerment: This is when she not only finds her voice but eventually takes control.
On the other, it frames Colette's life too much around Gauthier-Villars; he is there from the first scenes to the final ones. And in West's hands, he's a gloriously bombastic character, forever ducking creditors, carousing with women and prodding his ghost writers to keep his literary factor churning. At a low ebb, he encourages Colette to write. Though impressed by the results, he initially judges them uncommercial and "too feminine." ''Too many adjectives," he says.
Their scenes together sparkle with quick-witted dialogue. "I can read you like the top line at an optometrist's office," Colette tells Willy, surprising him with her smarts. As success comes their way, their relationship see-saws between affection and servitude. In one scene, Willy locks her in a room to write.
West's Willy is a clever kind of villain: an often well-meaning, genuinely smitten scoundrel who isn't remorseful for anything he does, even pocketing Colette's royalties. Caught with a prostitute, he defends himself with perfect unapologetic misogyny. "This is what men do!" he exclaims while hastily putting his clothes back on.
As Colette, Knightley receives that excuse as well as all other arguments for male privilege with total intolerance. Knightley, a veteran of finely costumed period pieces ("Pride & Prejudice," ''Anna Karenina"), isn't the first actress that comes to mind for playing a rule-breaking iconoclast. But she gives Colette a modern, uncompromising posture as she breezily flaunts the era's gendered orthodoxy. When her teeth are complimented, she smiles: "Like an alligator."
Still, there is little in Knightley's Colette that suggests the fire of a writer who published nearly 80 volumes in her career or the tenacity of someone who reported from the front lines of World War I. Nor is there the complexity and contradictions of a woman who so brazenly ignored — and was punished for ignoring — the time's female stereotypes while also resisting elements of the women's movement. Suffragettes, she said in 1910, deserved "the whip and the harem."
With its elegant photography by Giles Nuttgens and Thomas Ades' lush score, "Colette" may be missing some of the rebellious grit that its renegade hero deserves. It should be less polished and more punk rock. But in broad strokes, Westmoreland's film succeeds as an inspirational period tale so much for today about a woman seizing her independence. Hidden by a nom de plume and kept under lock and key, Colette bursts free.
"Colette," a Bleecker Street release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for sexuality/nudity. Running time: 121 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.