Colette, based on the life of French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette unfortunately has that feeling of being but a wan portrayal of the firebrand who became known for her journalistic and literary accomplishments, as well as her sexual exploits with men and women alike. Director Wash Westmoreland chooses to focus on Colette's early life and her evolution from naive country waif to the exceedingly modern woman she became. A country girl without a dowry, Colette (Keira Knightley) marries a man 14 years her senior, a lively Parisian philanderer named Willy (Dominic West). Before long, he's using her natural writing skills to his benefit, putting his name to wildly successful novels that she writes for him.
Colette certainly gives Knightley more of a range to plumb, and it's satisfying to see her with a role she can sink her teeth into. There's a distance from her character though, that is more at fault with the pacing and writing. Scenes are separated by leaps in time, and despite being a sort of origin story, we don't see as much of the actual inception as much as we could. We're led to believe that Colette needs only to be locked up into a room to produce literature, and to be subject to her husband's infidelity to pursue sexual fluidity.
This is not to say that Colette is not a thoroughly engaging film. There are delicious barbs of wit punctuating the script and Colette's road to artistic independence is far more contemporary than its backdrop would suggest. Westmoreland struggles to achieve the exact message he wants to convey. Is it the double life or meta existence within existence that Colette creates for herself when she writes herself into a story for her husband? Constantly throughout the film, we see Colette reflected and refracted through glass even as we experience her literary heroine reflected and refracted through her words. She's transformed into the public's image of the literary heroine and thus begins to see images and imitations of herself wherever she looks. It's an interesting theme that Westmoreland could have studied with more depth. The trajectory of the story would indicate that he wants to talk about Colette's metamorphosis, but it's more of a push and pull between her and her husband -- in fact, it seems that the more that her husband does wrong, the more she finds freedom.
There's nothing novel or incendiary in the story, but it's worth it to see Knightley's performance in a role that is both period and relevant. Where it fails is that in reading more into Sidonie-Gabrielle's history, we're surprised by a life that is far more expansive and compelling than what Westmoreland decided to convey.