Monday, October 22, 2018

Colette Is A Real Page-Turner (Because It's About An Author, Don't You See)

My favorite approach with historical dramas is ones that work around the clock to emphasize the relatable humanity of its lead characters. They may exist in a wholly different time period, but people are still people no matter whether it's 1718 or 2018 so it's nice when these kinds of period piece dramas make an effort to depict their characters as not sacrosanct caricatures of the past but rather flesh and blood people like you and me. Colette takes this approach to tell the true story of Gabrielle Colette (Kiera Knightley), a woman who broke all kinds of boundaries in European society as well as late 19th-century society in general without many even noticing.

As referenced numerous times throughout its runtime, Colette started out as a simple country girl whose whole life changed when she fell in love with her eventual husband Henry Gauthier-Villars (Dominic West), a man who runs a publishing house. The two's relationship quickly begins to become fraught with tension as Henry makes his unfaithful nature clear to Colette, though they still stick together as romantic partners, albeit with frequently gritted teeth. When his publishing house soon runs into dire financial straits, Henry comes up with an idea...what if Colette wrote a book for his company? They could publish it under his name (books written by women don't sell well according to Henry) and try to score a hit.

Turns out, the book Colette ends up writing, the first of four Claudine novels, isn't just a hit, it's a phenomenon and the ensuing success ends up spurring all kinds of triumph and turmoil for Colette as she tries to assert her individuality in the face of a husband who only see's her as a mechanism to deliver books. This basic plot covers a lot of terrain in Colette's life and trying to depict so much of one real-life person's life in the span of a single film is normally a kiss of death for biopic dramas, but Colette manages to avoid feeling as rushed as those features thanks to a script (credited to three writers including the movie's director Wash Westmoreland) that finds some focus in its depiction of these numerous years of Colette's life by way of zeroing in on her perpetual quest to be her own person.

While society at large and her own husband want to fit her into a narrowly defined box, Colette is a vibrant person with dimensions in every regard from her personality to her sexuality, specifically her bisexuality, which the movie deftly doesn't treat as some massive shock but rather as just another part of who Colette is. The way Colette the movie constantly explores its titular lead characters perspective as well as the complex but no less dangerous ways Henry's possessive behavior manifests (most sharply in how he's cool with her sleeping with other women but not other men) shows a level of thoughtfulness that makes this a fascinating character study rather than the dry history lesson it could have been in weaker hands.

The aforementioned approach of making historical characters behave like real people also helps make one invested in the characters of Colette since they speak, behave and even fart (yes, fart) like normal people, shattering any sort of barrier that could crop up separating modern audiences from these characters set in the past. Though, all of these smartly incorporated moves on a writing level certainly help make the story of Colette feel as vibrant as can be, Kiera Knightley's performance alone makes its lead character fascinating to watch. Knightley is no stranger to period piece dramas about women fighting against societal gender norms placed on women (she even kinda did that in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie!) and this has gotta be one of her best performances in a subgenre she already finds frequent success in.

Knightley is especially skilled at conveying the complex emotions her character endures at various points throughout the story, most noticeably her feelings towards her frequently abusive husband, a character played by Dominic West in probably the most inspired of the feature film performances I've seen from him. Truth be told, Colette isn't quite as inspired on a visual level when it comes to its cinematography or editing (though the latter element does show some creativity in how it cuts between Collete and her husband separately carrying on an affair with the same woman), but the carefully considered writing and acting (as well as the recurring presence of a precious French bulldog!) carried this one well past my expectations and make Colette a special recent entry in the historical drama subgenre.

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