Bi-weekly Binge: Beyond the veil - Collette samples feminism and queer politics in the 1890s
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new – in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley) tries on a dress and is unimpressed. The dress is courtesy her husband -- they are newly married, and the city of Paris is newer to her than he is. She walks out of her room in a less-than-enthusiastic ensemble to the barely concealed shock of Henry Gauthier-Villars aka Willy (Dominic West) who makes a polite inquiry about the dress he had chosen. She shoots back, "I couldn't breathe in it." Story of a marriage. It is hard to tell if she's talking about the dress or she has had a vision of how their future years will turn out. They arrive at a hoity-toity gathering in Paris, just before the turn of the century, where artists and socialites discuss and pass judgments on something brand new that has graced their thriving city - the Eiffel Tower. Colette is from the country and when Willy announces to everyone that she is his wife, they mourn Willy's world of indulgence. Colette, who brushed off toothpaste from her last-minute replacement attire, promises that the wild days have just begun.
In Wash Westmoreland's biopic Colette that is currently streaming on Netflix, the writer more than keeps her promise. Looking at Colette and the way Knightley plays her, it is hard to tell that the period is the 1890s. Westmoreland infuses the film with a neo-spunk that almost seems anachronistic within the film's setting. Willy underestimates her -- he thinks he's done her a favour by marrying into a family that could provide no dowry and had no prospects. But Colette turns out to be a different beast. At the same party, she looks at a tortoise in a glass box and says, “You want the earth and the grass, don't you?" The analogy might be a little on the nose but the first time we see Colette is when she is running in the countryside, on lush grassy hills. Willy's literature (he publishes a few magazines and contributes stories) does the absolute minimum and for all his pretentious feelings about Paris of that time, targets the lowest denominator. Or more importantly, his writings are created for and by men. Every story for him leads into "sexual quagmire". When he reads little of Colette's writings, he complains that there is no plot, there is nothing driving the tale and that it is too feminine. He probably turned in his grave when the French New Wave came along sixty years later. Colette begins to help him as his magazines run into debt. She borrows stories from her childhood, builds on them and embellishes them leading to the Claudine series that opens doors to new perspectives.
As Claudine enjoys success, Colette and Willy's marriage becomes strictly functional and business-like. Colette's open views on gender, sexual preference is hinted early on when a woman fascinated by her says, "there is something androgynous about you." An arguably dangerous pickup line but maybe for that time in queer politics, revealing. Both Colette and Willy begin an affair with a wealthy but lonely American socialite Georgie Raoul-Duval, jealousy driving each other to cheat with the same person, which is taken to comical proportions. Fact and fiction begin to merge and Colette-Willy become a power couple in Paris even as within the domestic setting, Willy's hold turns flaccid. It is Colette whose talents expand to greater heights. The joys of Wesmoreland's film are in its language - often metaphorical and overstated - and the witty repartee from Colette. The film, written by Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz and Westmoreland is more of a dramedy, handling complex issues of the period with a slew of jokes and one-liners that today would make great tweets. It's the early years of the suffragette movement but Colette's thoughts and philosophies are fully formed, she is the 1890s version of what we would call woke today. She befriends Mathilde de Morny aka Missy, a French artist who scandalises the Paris scene by dressing in all-masculine attire. With Missy in the middle of transition, Colette even corrects Willy when he uses the wrong pronouns while referring to Missy.
For a period drama, Colette is fascinatingly quick in its narrative structure and jumps years, focusing only on the highlights from that period in Colette's life. That way, it works like the greatest hits from Colette's life from the early 1890s to the end of the first decade of 20th century. Early on after reading Colette's writings, Willy complains that people need spice and hers is full of literature. Later when everything fails, he looks at his work and says it is full of spice, there is no literature. Westmoreland, with Colette, combines spice and literature, comedy and drama to give a fast paced, entertaining biopic of a writer-thinker far ahead of her time.