Friday, October 12, 2018

COLETTE - BFI London Film Festival 2018 - Day Two

Wash Westmoreland switches gears from his wonderful STILL ALICE to a period drama about the French Belle Epoque novelist Colette, and her marriage to the literary impresario "Willy".  As the movie opens we see the charming, avuncular Willy come to rural Burgundy to woo the girl over a decade younger than him, but our expectations over-turned as this apparent innocent meets him later in a hay barn for a quickie.  They then move to Paris and begin their married life. She is frustrated by his affairs and flirtations - he says it's just what men do.  But the real conflict will come when Willy enlists Colette to be on his "factory" of writers. They provide the words - he the brand name and marketing.  Colette pours her childhood memories into books that effectively create a new genre - coming of age stories with a hint of subversive sexuality for young women.  Combined with Willy's carefully orchestrated PR machine, the books are a success. But all under Willy's name....

What's wonderful about this film is its recreation of a fascinating period of history - one of bold ideas, beautiful art, freedom and flirtation.  The costumes and sets are beautifully done, and even Thomas Ades' score introduces what would then have been cutting edge compositions. After all, it's this artsy salon crowd that would first have embraced Satie's Gymonpedes. I also love the completely unflamboyant way in which the film embraces colour-blind casting, and its straightforward depiction of gay relationships and gender fluid living.

As for the main strokes of the story, the script (Wash Westmoreland, the late Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz) commits sins of omission rather than commission.  It is very true to the life of Colette and Willy, and especially to their facility with words. What might have been quite a dirge-like film about a woman exploited by a man is thus transformed into something very smart and witty, and often laugh out loud funny. To that end, Dominic West - who has been getting away with rogueish behaviour since THE WIRE - is perfectly cast as the "fat arsehole".  Indeed, after a rather triumphant speech by a career-best Keira Knightley, one feels rather uplifted and hopeful at the end of the film - something confirmed by end title cards that tell us how happy and successful Colette was, and of her position as the premiere women of French letters.  

My only slight complaint is that the film wants to subtly shoe-horn the Colette story into having an ending that's more streamlined and progressive than the reality would prove.  If you knew nothing else about her than what you saw in the film, you might suppose that she fought for and won all the rights to be seen as the sole author of her work and that she had a long and happy relationship with Missy.  By contrast, the relationship with Missy ended (Missy ended up committing suicide after the war) and Colette married a man and had a child.  And while she did win the rights to be sole author after Willy's death, after HER death, Willy's son contested the authorship again. 

COLETTE has a running time of 110 minutes and is rated R.  The film played Sundance, Toronto and London 2018. It went on limited release in the USA on September 21st and will be released in the UK on January 25th 2019.

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