What does it say about the times in which we live that two movies, “Colette” (Bleecker Street) and “The Wife”, about women who were the wives of writers and who were secretly the ones writing their husbands’ books, are playing in theaters at the same time? “The Wife” is set in the mid-to-late 20th century, while “Colette” takes place in the late 19th century and early 20th century, but some of the similarities are difficult to avoid.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightley), who went by Gabrielle, was a country girl without a dowry in 1892. This was of great concern to her father Jules (Robert Pugh) and mother Sido (Fiona Shaw). Her one prospect was a Parisian writer named Henry Gauthier-Villars who went by the name Willy (Dominic West), who actually had a team of writers composing the books on which he put his name as author. Colette and Willy, who had already begun a clandestine sexual relationship, were soon married and living together in Paris.
Swept up in La Belle Epoch, Willy is the toast of the town. He and Gabrielle attend salons with artistic types. Initially, Gabrielle is unimpressed, but that soon changes when she sees how free and open people are, both sexually and socially. Regardless, she is unprepared for the shock of Willy’s infidelity.
But Gabrielle proves to be as wily as Willy. She joins his stable of writers. She produces solid work, although Willy is critical of it. She admits to Willy that she is attracted to a woman. She changes her name, choosing to go by Colette.
Once he realizes how talented Colette is, he encourages her to write more. He sells a novel of hers, written under his name, to his publisher. The book becomes a best-seller. Knowing she is “keen on nature”, Willy buys her a country house, a place for her to write.
Colette is living life to the fullest. She writes and takes pantomime classes with performer Wague (Dickie Beau). An encounter with Georgie (Eleanor Tomlinson), a “wayward debutante from Louisiana, leads Colette to her first serious lesbian relationship. Although Willy finds a way to spoil that, too, by also sleeping with Georgie.
Intent on becoming independent, she pursues a life as a performer, traveling with Wague, as well as her butch new lover Missy (Denise Gough). Eventually, she is able to be public about her life as a writer, exposing Willy for the fraud he was and enjoying renown under her own name.
Knightley is wonderful as Colette, embodying her transformation from country girl to full-fledged city woman. Out director and co-screenwriter Wash Westmoreland (the Oscar-winning “Still Alice”) has come a long way since his mainstream theatrical debut (2001’s “The Fluffer”) and continues to grow and improve as a filmmaker.