Liberté, Égalité and Literature
By Michael S. Goldberger
Watching director Wash Westmoreland’s “Colette,” about the life and times of Gabrielle Colette, the heralded French literary figure whose celebrated “Claudine” novels were published under her husband’s name, I feared I wasted my life by never having moved to Paris. Such hyperbolic self-examination, while exaggerated for my own literary purposes here, is nonetheless proof of what a fine period piece this film is. Still, while boasting Keira Knightley in a superb title portraiture, those indifferent to belles-lettres and avant-garde sensibilities need not apply.
Truth be told, even this foppish reviewer felt that fifteen or so minutes of this studiously etched biography might have been lopped off without serious detriment. But oh, the depicted enchantment of Paris in the late 19th Century…now that’s the place to be if you feature yourself in the business of turning a phrase. Art direction and set design splendidly realized through an understated, matter-of-fact sense of realism epitomize what we imagine when speaking of escaping to the movies. Sit here, outside a café, eating a baguette, and being so je ne sais quoi.
The stage set, the topics are universal, only maybe even more so. While there’s no discounting the importance of a certain amount of present-mindedness when delving into a previous era, “Colette’s” insight-filled look at feminist issues intelligently reminds that we’ve come a long, but certainly not a long enough way, baby. Representing what it means to be stultified by outdated mores and folkways specifically instituted to aggrandize their oppressors, it has been brave women like Colette who have steadily chiseled away at the shackles that constrained them.
It is unlike any other revolution in that the insurgent, while petitioning for her cause, is in the tricky position of wanting to preserve much of a society that has otherwise sought to perpetuate her 2nd class citizenship. All of which might explain why there’s a whole group of women who, as evidenced by their voting habits, would rather be Adam’s rib than a full-fledged, independent-thinking Eve. Tsk, tsk. Such are the inequities of socialization. But while ladies of the status quo are painted in literature as sad figures, being a firebrand like Colette takes a bunch of chutzpah.
In good part, “Colette” symbolizes the power we hope humans possess, the mental acumen to progressively evolve into whatever our touted big brain can imagine. Flip the right synapse and perhaps we’ll even be able to fly. What do birds have on us, anyway? In any case, the idea is that Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, circa 1873, in the village of Saint-Saveur, province of Burgundy, while doubtlessly motivated by personal ambition, was, in the process of her fight for literary equality, a humanitarian whose goals dovetailed with reformist ideology.
So, voila, if you’ll pardon my French, there it is, integral to this memoire, the resurging feminist call for common sense …in this case a historical stepping stone to literary progress. It shouts, ‘Throw off your prejudices and welcome into the fold the other half of civilization.’ Miss Knightley’s Colette, effervescent and powerful but sweet, astutely embodies the victim of male chauvinistic provincialism. All she wants is a fair shake. So it is opportune that whether by chance, intuition or perseverance, she picks the right man as a conduit to her self-actualization.
Oh, it doesn’t start that way…not consciously. It’s actually quite romantic in a French, Gilded Age sort of way. He, Henry Gauthier-Villars, but known as Willy, is already an established figure among the literati…a dashing, privileged rake known in all the best homes and all the questionable nightspots. So it shocks the salon crowd when he weds the seemingly unpresumptuous country girl without the sake of a dowry that would at least uncloak his motive. While a product of his time, he’s open-minded in that French, Lautrecian sort of way.
Although it all eventually leads to Colette ghosting Willy to great literary renown via the “Claudine” stories, a semi-fictionalized recounting of her experiences from childhood on, it’s the behind-the-scenes synergy and how it ultimately facilitates Colette’s self-fulfillment that ingratiates us most. Dominic West as the bon vivant spouse torn between the naughty joys of bachelorhood he’s loath to relinquish and what it’ll take to please the love of his life epitomizes the hormonal hypocrisy that stands in the way of a level playing field for men and women.
My big sister Anne has often opined that if a couple doesn’t fight now and then, someone is dominating. Well, there’s no fear of that in this authentic look at marriage. The sparks fly, intellectually, that is. Argument makes way for revelation. Showing how the seeds of great change are often sown at home, “Colette” smartly informs that La Difference means anything but unequal.
“Colette,” rated R, is a Bleecker Street Media release directed by Wash Westmoreland and stars Keira Knightley, Dominic West and Fiona Shaw. Running time: 111 minutes