I saw this at a BAFTA preview some weeks ago, and I was underwhelmed. So I am surprised to read some of the other reviews claiming this as a ‘glamourous gritty biopic’ and the wide applause for Keira Knightley’s performance in the title role. I guess I am just not a Knightley fan – her characters somehow always seem the same to me. Beautiful and glamourous yes, but the voice never changes, nor do the wry facial expressions.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette is a country mouse who is inexplicably wooed and won by a friend of her father and Paris literary figure Henri Gauthier-Villars, aka Willy. Once he has whisked her off her feet to Paris, she is initially overwhelmed but stakes her own claim for individuality at the start by refusing to compete with the fashions of the other women and engaging in mild flirtations.  

She soon discovers that Willy is a fake – all his books are ghost-written by a factory of helpers, and his star is on the wane, as well as his finances. He desperately needs a new big idea. He hits upon the ruse to use Colette’s innocent childhood as his muse and get her to record it for him. Still in his thrall, at first, she complies and suddenly Claudine a l’Écoleis taking the young women of Paris by storm.

Soon they are a couple in demand, and Claudine sequels follow. Her new fans emulate her every outfit and her bob is the rage. But just like Glenn Close’s character in The Wife, we wonder at what point will Colette rebel against her coercive and controlling husband, who resorts to locking her up in their new country mansion. ‘Write!’ he thunders and steadfastly refuses to allow the books to be jointly authored.

Colette’s new fame gives her access to avant-garde Paris and she is soon experimenting with her sexuality, pursuing high-society ladies as well as the androgynous Missy, who dresses like a man and encourages Colette to do likewise, much to Willy’s fury. 

In true biopic form the film narrates Colette’s journey to fame via notoriety, which includes some embarrassingly bad/funny burlesque scenes with Missy at Le Moulin Rouge and on tour, while she tried to find her true self. Her relationship with Missy gives her the courage to put Willy in his place and find her creative independence for which she was eventually acclaimed.

It is true that Knightley is seductive and alluring in all the variations of Colette, but my niggles remain. Dominic West makes for a convincing chauvinist as Willy, with his rich roaring voice and portly (padded) figure. Apparently it was so hot filming in Budapest that he had to have a cold water radiator system strapped onto him underneath his hefty suit. 

The film is mouth-watering visually: Budapest makes for a convincing Paris of the belle epoche and the countryside reverberates with lushness; the costumes are glorious and the cinematography is prettily done. Nevertheless I found the film at least 15 minutes too long as I jiggled around on my bum, wondering when and where it would all end.

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