Dr. Nancy West, a longtime cinema member and Professor of English at The University of Missouri, writes about Ragtag films for our website.
By some coincidence (or not), three movies have appeared in the past month that involve a woman, the magnetic man she loves, and the question of how her talent defines their romance. First, there was The Wife, which Ragtag featured in September. It tells the story of a woman (Glenn Close) who had been ghostwriting her husband’s celebrated novels for decades—and finally revolts when he wins the Nobel Prize and expects her to sit quietly at the banquet table and applaud.
Onscreen right now is the fifth (!) remake of A Star Is Born, this time depicting a young singer (Lady Gaga) who rises to stardom while her drug-addicted, alcoholic singer/lover watches his own star fade to black.
Colette marks the third film in this recent cycle. It focuses on the marriage of French novelist “Colette” (Keira Knightley) to “Willy,” a well-known, middle-aged, paunchy author—or, rather, shameless literary entrepreneur—who bullies the young Colette into writing the titillating fiction that he passes off as his own. By the end of the movie she leaves him, embarking on her own career and a love affair with a cross-dressing noblewoman.
It doesn’t take Gloria Steinem to notice that these three movies, as different as they are, reflect our #MeToo era of feminine rage against powerful, egocentric men. This is especially true of Colette—and yet as hard as it tries to be a feminist tale of transformation and independence, it winds up seeming confused.
Part of the problem is Willy (Dominick West) himself, who, whatever the film’s intentions, is the most well drawn character in Colette. He is also irresistible. Cad he may be, but he fills the movie—and all its luscious Parisian rooms—with air and energy. And the chemistry between him and Colette, even at the rockiest points in their relationship, is far more intense than the chemistry between her and her female lovers (including the fetching redhead who plays Demelza in Poldark). The film wants to be about Colette’s feminist awakening, but its energy lies in the attraction Willy commands.
Some viewers have complained that Colette doesn’t depict enough of the novelist’s long and incredibly rich life (this is a woman who wrote 80 books, slept with half of Paris, and had a baby at 40. And again at 47). I disagree. As a rule, biopics suffer from too much ambition. The filmmakers were wise to focus just on the origin story of Colette, on the question of how an innocent girl from the country came to be a woman of the world. Colette doesn’t quite capture that transformation, at least not in its deeper, more intimately mysterious registers—and this, perhaps, is why the film never pulls off its feminist message, despite the hard-working Knightley, whose long, angry speech to Willy at the end I can already see clipped for a Best Actress nomination—even though it’s Willy, shattered and, for once, inarticulate, who steals the scene.