Keira Knightley shines as French literary giant ‘Colette’ | Movies

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She was the JK Rowling of her time. Only, for a long time, no one knew.

The author known as Colette wrote a string of huge bestsellers in France at the turn of the 20th century and beyond. Her first four novels, about a young woman named Claudine, were massive hits. Readers not only devoured the books, but bought Claudine brand lingerie, hand cream and candy, and women began to style their hair after the literary heroine.

But Colette’s name was not in the books. Instead, she wrote them for her husband, who told her that “female authors don’t sell”. While he took all the fame (and, ultimately, all the money), she worked on the books in obscurity.

“Colette” is the story of a very unconventional marriage and literary partnership, with Keira Knightley making a very endearing Colette. Colette’s real life gives writer-director Wash Westmoreland (“Still Alice”) plenty of material to work with – in addition to being a writer, she was also a performer at the infamous Moulin Rouge. It’s one of the movies where you then check Wikipedia to see “Did this really happen?” More often than not, it was.

We first meet Sidonie Gabrielle-Colette as a small-town French girl, wooed by socialite and horny author Henry Gauthier-Villars, aka “Willy” (Dominick West of “The Wire”). He marries her and takes her to Paris, and introduces her to a world of debauched parties and libertine pleasures. She turns out to be more than a game to go along with Willy’s inclinations, and their relationship has a greedy headmaster-student side.

Colette also learns that Willy doesn’t actually write his own books, but employs a stable of writers to turn his ideas and sketches into novels. Eventually, she decides to give it a try and, with her advice on what will sell on the market, creates Claudine’s first novel.

As she writes more and more novels, the line between marriage and literary partnership becomes blurred. It would be easy to portray Willy as an overt villain, but West’s sly performance is more complex than that. He certainly exploits Colette’s talents for his own benefit, but he also loves her in his own way. He just doesn’t know what it’s like to love someone as an equal. And it turns out Colette is more than a match for him.

Over the years, the principal-student relationship becomes tiresome for Colette, who longs for freedom (and finds herself increasingly attracted to women). Her literary and emotional emancipation from Willy becomes the heart of “Colette,” and Knightley brings fire and conviction to her performance as Colette. As Colette said in an interview years later, “What a wonderful life I’ve had. If only I had realized that sooner.

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