It has been a few weeks since I had been to the Pictures and when I got up last Wednesday, I hadn’t planned to be going again on that particular day. Christmas is a bad time to see anything good at the cinema unless your idea of good equates to something like a 10 year olds.
Over the weekend I had sat entirely bored out of mind watching the apparently acclaimed Netflix movie Birdbox. Being a huge fan of scary movies, I watched the whole thing through waiting for something more frightening than Sandra Bullock bizarrely looking like Michael Jackson but it was all for nothing. I already get the feeling it might be the biggest waste of 2 hours in all of 2019, unless I accidentally sit-in a screening for a comic-book film.
Last night I watched the rather fantastic Martin Clunes in the ITV miniseries Manhunt following the detective work behind the capture of a horrific serial killer in West London around 16 years ago. It was gripping and chilling and was weighing on my mind this morning when I checked the listings to see if anything good was out at the multiplex at the end of my street.
It wasn’t promising but just having scrolled through the listings, I came across a film I hadn’t seen advertised and was presumably about the French writer Colette. What could be a grander way to spend a morning than in turn of the century Paris with all its pomp and grandeur whilst learning a little more about perhaps the finest female writer in the French language.
Also, I’ve been far too busy with work to do any writing of my own so I thought I might live vicariously for a few hours.
The downside to all of this was that it starred Keira Knightley. I always think the film critic who labels her Ikea Knightley on account of her wooden acting as being a little too kind but at £5 a ticket, a sore throat and it being 9am in the morning, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Besides it is said after years of practice even someone with little talent can improve a little, something that I remember was said of the Spice Girls shortly before they split up.
As it happens, whilst not being the most impressive part of the film even in the starring role, Kiera Knightley rather fitted the part quite well and was less insufferable than in some of her earlier performances.
The film tells the account of French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who lived from the 28th January 1873 until the 3rd August 1954. Colete was a country girl at heart but to say that she made a name for herself in Paris is a huge understatement.
Her most famous works were the Claudine novels which tell (for the time) racy accounts of a young provincial girl coming of age in the big city. The books were the toast of Paris in 1900 and widely read by women of the day who took her liberation vicariously to heart.
Although widely considered autobiographical now, the books were attributed not to Colette herself but to her first husband, the roguish literary entrepreneur Henry Gauthier-Villars, better-known as “Willy”. At his worst, as illustrated with caddish gusto in the film by Dominic West. At times Willy would even lock Colette in an upstairs room and force her to write whilst he scattered his oats across Paris because that is what men do… apparently!
Colette was a prisoner of his sweatshop approach to literary production which employed or perhaps exploited many ghostwriters to create his Willy brand.
Willy oversees her initiation into the bohemian life-style of Paris where her creative appetites are triggered. Ready to capitalise on her talent, Willy convinces his wife to write novels, which he suggests should be released under his name as the purported author as it would apparently by unacceptable and impolite for a woman to be an author and if nothing else, would kill sales. The phenomenal success of the series of novels titled “Claudine” makes Willy a well-known writer and “Colette and Willy” the “first couple” among contemporary celebrities.
In a way that reminds me of Goodbye Christopher Robin, Claudine took Paris by storm. All the women and young ladies lapped her up. She had her own brands and endorsements. Colette and Willy were the Posh Spice and David Beckham of their day, only with more talent and less tattoos.
What made the novels even more juicy was the fact that both Willy and Colette enjoyed a very wild open adult life, making full use of everything Paris had to offer and as Colette became more engrossed in the culture then so did Claudine get ever more wilder.
Despite the century or more which has passed, in some ways Colette speaks to our times too, not just for the novelist’s fight to throw off these patriarchal shackles but also the ways she chose to express her true character through her public acting and dance. Also her more private lesbian affairs through which she flaunted her independence and unwillingness to settle into a tired and oppressed married women. In one particularly memorable occasion, Colette and Willy were both seeing the same American female lover and unknown to the other.
Colette really gets going with her ahead-of-her-time take on her femininity and identity when she is introduced to Missy, a descendant of Empress Josephine and the Tzar of Russia and who wearing trousers is probably the least scandalous side of her personality. When Missy asks Colette about her marriage, Colette replies that Willy can be tough but he gives her a whole lot of freedom. Missy replies that it is indeed a very long leash but a leash nonetheless.
This sets into motion the end of the by turns passionate and hated marriage and when Willy finances a scandalous play at Moulin Rouge which concludes with Colette kissing a made up as a male Missy then all hell breaks lose, impending bankruptcy looms and Colette realises that Willy has made a huge amount of money from her talents, largely squandered the fortunes and she is neither appreciated or recognised for it and so sets off to start her life and career afresh.
I really enjoyed Colette and it certainly opened my eyes as to her life story as well as reminding me as to why I like going to the cinema when there is a film with some sort of plot. The best scenes of the film are imbued with light and linguistic flamboyance and it all evokes the opulence of 1900’s art and culture, both in Colette’s deliciously vampish treading of the boards, and in some airy countryside scenes and Sunday bike rides through Parisian parks as how I would imagine it to be during what in Britain would be the Edwardian era.
I must say I really enjoyed Dominic West with his swaggering performance as Willy and who avoided being a one dimensional monster of a husband as he could easily have been portrayed to be.
Aside from the growth of Colette, it is notable that nearly everyone hated writing, describing it is as entirely horrific with rare moments of pleasure. Rather like life itself I think! As such it would have been nice if the film had been longer than 112 minutes; I enjoy epic films but brevity can be a good thing if it means not outstaying ones welcome and so I will end this post here 🙂