Could Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (a steely Keira Knightley ) become the new Jane Austen? Her books are not as well-known to movie fans — though the 1958 musical based on her 1940 novella “Gigi” won nine Academy Awards, and the 2009 screen version of her “Cheri” (1920) came and went with little note. But as seen in Wash Westmoreland’s period-plush biopic,“Colette,” her life was more exciting than Austen’s.
In short order “Colette” whisks the 20-year-old seeming innocent from her cozy home in the painterly provincial town of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye to fin-de-siècle Paris, where she marries gregarious bounder and literary light Henri Gauthier-Villars, a.k.a. “Willy” (played with bewhiskered gusto by Dominic West). Though a country girl, she sees through the pretensions of the literary salons; at her first picturesquely decadent soirée she is bored, ignored, and bonds with a forlorn, jewel-encrusted tortoise skittering on a golden platter.
Willy runs a “factory” of writers who churn out money-making novels, stories, and articles bearing his name. He calls them “slaves,” and when they go on strike for back pay he pressures Colette into writing down the amusing stories she tells about her schoolgirl days. After Willy tarts up her first effort,“Claudine at School” (1900), and puts his name on it, it becomes a bestseller, spawning a series of sequels and a Harry Potter-like “Claudine” cultural phenomenon. Everywhere women and girls dress in Claudine’s nunlike school uniform; pomades, soap, and cigarettes bear her name; and a stage version of the book confirms the book as blockbusting franchise. When Colette balks at churning out more product, greedy Willy locks her in her bedroom until she complies.
Colette remains complacent, though, as the money flows in. It also flows out to fund Willy’s philandering, nightlife, and gambling. When Colette catches him in delictu, he agrees to an open marriage. Allowed to experiment, Colette finds she prefers women, and in one amusing sequence Colette and Willy alternately bed the same bored wife of an American tycoon.
The arrangement works until Colette falls for Marquise de Belbeuf, known as “Missy” (Denise Gough), an aristocrat who dresses and acts like a man. She points out to Colette the obvious fact that her husband is a parasite and she should dump him and pursue her own career.
Such is the underlying dramatic arc, but Westmoreland’s narrative is cluttered with undeveloped subplots and loose ends. He compensates by evoking the era with images drawing from painters like Gustave Caillebotte and Toulouse-Lautrec and soundtrack music that ranges from Strauss-like waltzes to Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies.” He also shows subtlety in many of his sequences: In a salon scene a soprano is heard singing, a pan is made to a mime mouthing the lyrics who seems the source of the music, and finally to the woman actually singing. In less than a minute it says more about the fluidity of gender roles and the over-ripe culture of the Belle Époque than much of the uninspired dialogue.
None of his would work without the nuanced and passionate performance of Knightley, who not only brings to life a woman discovering new desires and needs and finding the strength to act on them, but conveys the inner toil of the writer’s creative process.
“Colette” overreaches with an anachronistic insistence on such topical themes as name branding, feminism, LGBT rights, and celebrity culture. More relevant than such forced timeliness is the film’s acknowledgment of a neglected writer whom Katherine Anne Porter deemed greater than Gide and Proust.
Directed by Wash Westmoreland. Written by Westmoreland, Richard Glatzer, and Rebecca Lenkiewicz. Starring Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Eleanor Tomlinson, and Denise Gough. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, West Newton. 112 min. R (for some sexuality/nudity).