From the outside, it’s easy to understand why Colette could be confused for being run of the mill awards bait. Its director, Wash Westmoreland, was fresh off co-directing Julianne Moore to an Oscar win for Still Alice, while the film is adapted from a true story, set amongst high society in a period setting that whitewashes the widespread poverty of that era. But Colette is not gunning for awards glory – instead, Westmoreland’s biopic brings more than a touch of camp to its dramatisation of an unbelievable true story, making for a riotous good time at the movies. It’s a popcorn crowd pleaser disguised as a respectable, middlebrow drama.
In the 1890’s, Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) meets her first husband, the struggling writer Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West). He’s having difficulties with finances, yet still lives a lavish lifestyle to keep up appearances in high society; his books aren’t selling, so he asks his wife to begin ghostwriting his next effort. Eventually, her story Claudine is published and turns the pair’s fortunes around, but this period of happiness doesn’t last forever. The pair have an open, borderline polyamorous relationship – although Henry’s jealousy means that he only lets his wife pursue affairs with other women. When Colette meets Mathilde de Morny (Denise Gough), she becomes instantly smitten, and finally begins to see through Henry’s long standing flaws to reclaim her own authority as an artist, instead of being a mere ghostwriter.
Despite the period setting and the well known nature of the true story, this particular dramatisation of Colette’s life could only have been made in 2018. For starters, the film avoids making any judgement on the sex lives of its characters; both Colette and her husband sleep with other people, and yet this isn’t depicted as some fatal flaw hammering the nail in the coffin of their married stability. It’s easy to imagine any earlier versions of this story being overly moralistic, or liable to completely avoid documenting this aspect of the characters altogether – even as it was so integral to the art Colette made. The film does admittedly find humour in this aspect of their relationship, but their sexual openness is never the butt of the joke, or a cheap source of laughs otherwise.
Then there’s Colette’s relationship with Mathilde. With the film being set during a period prior to societal awareness of transgender people, it still feels refreshing, and not remotely anachronistic, when Colette refers to Mathilde as a “he”, because of the character’s preference to dress in men’s clothing. It’s a small gesture within a relationship that still has the power to feel groundbreaking; here’s a film set over a century ago, that manages to have a more nuanced depiction of gender fluidity than many films set in the modern day.
However, the period setting does make it difficult to use the correct pronouns in commending this – and the fact a cis gender actress is playing this role doesn’t make it any easier either. The film’s period pre-dates any research into transitioning surgery, so hiring a cis actress for the role doesn’t feel controversial given the specific historical context. And considering the loving, non-judgemental portrayal of Mathilde, it’s clear that we aren’t dealing with another cynically minded case of a cis actor taking on a trans role for critical glory. Rest assured, this couldn’t be further from the Danish Girl if it tried.
Outside of its documentation of gender fluidity and same sex relationships during a period where they were scorned by society, Colette still remains a breath of fresh air amongst a field of stuffy costume dramas. The film is often hysterically funny (Westmoreland co-wrote the screenplay with his late partner Jonathan Glatzer), with Dominic West giving an entertainingly histrionic performance in the lead. Most performers would aim for awards in a role that demands them to be the selfish, yet eccentric, husband. Instead, he makes it a masterclass in campiness, hamming it up so exquisitely the screen resembles a deli counter every time he appears. Nobody onscreen treats the material like awards bait; it’s too offbeat in its comedic quirks and too progressive in its sexual and gender politics to fall in to that trap. This may be based on a true story, yet it feels like a minor miracle no producer tried to sanitise it in the hope of bagging some Oscar acclaim.
Don’t judge a book by its cover – Colette is commendable in how it shrugs off the conservatism of the past, telling a period drama that feels more contemporary than the vast majority of films set in this day and age. There may be some minor controversy over the actress portraying Mathilde, but the period setting makes it a rare case of “cis-washing” that isn’t as easy to assess as it would normally appear. And even with that taken into account, Westmoreland’s film remains pretty remarkable; a high camp entertainment that finds time to solemnly explore the intricacies of gender and sexuality, without making them cheap punchlines.